Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Alaska, part 3: Ports of Call

As I said, the first day of cruising was At Sea, though not as far out as originally scheduled. Still, we pitched and rolled and my inner ears were affected just enough to leave me pretty darned dizzy. We all got a chance to explore the ship and figure out a daily routine.

Finally we entered the calmer waters of Glacier Bay. When in the late 1700s Capt. Vancouver came through the area, the bay wasn’t even there. Three hundred years ago we had the Little Ice Age. The native Tlingit people said the great glacier there began to advance “as fast as a dog can run.” They had to abandon their lands. (They got their lands back in the 1980s.)

Since that ice age, the glacier carved out a mammoth bay. There are large bay-emptying  (tidewater) glaciers here and there, especially at the very end, and lots of mountain valley-type glaciers. The water is teal-colored, as is most water that comes off a glacier and carries sediment with it.

As the day began we were boarded by a bunch of Park Rangers and a few Tlingit. Most passengers gathered in the Mondrian auditorium to hear the talk about the bay and its history. A Tlingit lady in full native costume told us the story from her people’s point of view, bringing us into the modern era with the tale of what had happened to the Tlingit. Her parents didn’t know the customs or language, but she had been lucky enough to grow up listening to her two grandmothers, who taught her about their people.

The bay was a pretty, normal bay for a while... and then we began to see bits of ice, like someone had spilled an ice tray from a very big refrigerator. I made my way up to the top promenade, where most of the ship who weren’t sitting in the heated, dry forward view lounge, were standing around the railings.

Wiki: “Glacier Bay Basin in southeastern Alaska, in the United States, encompasses the Glacier Bay and surrounding mountains and glaciers, which was first proclaimed a U.S. National Monument on February 25, 1925, and which was later, on December 2, 1980, enlarged and designated as the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, covering an area of 3,283,000 acres (1,329,000 ha). In 1986, UNESCO declared an area of 57,000 acres (23,000 ha) within a World Biosphere Reserve. This is the largest UNESCO protected biosphere in the world. In 1992, UNESCO included this area as a part of a World Heritage site, extending over an area of 24,300,000-acre (98,000 km2) which also included the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kluane National Park (Canada) and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park (Canada). Part of the National Park is also designated a Wilderness area covering 2,658,000 acres (1,076,000 ha).”

Again: “John Muir, the naturalist, conservationist and scientist, pioneered the focus of the world on the Glacier Bay phenomenon. During his research Muir had witnessed the glaciers in action. He had noted that the ice had retreated almost all the way up. In 1888 (1889 is also mentioned in some references) when John Muir first visited the Bay, this wall was 48 miles (77 km) and retreated from the sea by 44 miles (71 km). Now, it stands retreated to 65 miles (105 km), as a remnant of the old wall of the glacier system and has 16 major tidewater glaciers (10, 12 and 15 are also mentioned in some references).”

So the bay’s a LOT bigger than it was just a while ago, getting 65 miles larger in just the past 200 years as most of the glaciers retreat.
The Margerie glacier. Great Pacific is just starting on the right of this pic.
The glacier is about one mile wide with an ice face that is about 250 feet high above the waterline.

The ice bits became larger and larger. Some were large enough to hold three seals or sea lions. They were striped with black. At the end of the right-hand fork of the bay were two enormous walls of ice: the Margerie Glacier, which is stable, and to its right, the Grand Pacific Glacier, which was the name of the glacier when it filled up the entire bay area. It’s receding at about 30 feet a year. The Grand Pacific is a LOT dirtier than Margerie. I was hoping that we’d witness a calving. We did hear a roar once and everyone was excited, but nothing we could see broke off anywhere.
Great Pacific glacier. Margerie is just to the left. Why is it so dirty?
Avalanches, rock slides, tributary glaciers and the scouring of the valley have
caused an accumulation of dirt and rock.

Going into the bay, the decks were crowded with people vying for the best photo opportunities. After exploring both arms of the bay the ship turned around and... ghost town. I got in a few more dozen shots, though. I also bought a thumb drive that has 300 professionally-shot photos. Let's see if you can tell the difference between one of those and something I shot:

The next day we came into Haines. It’s a very small town that used to be home to Ft. Seward, and many of the officers’ houses still exist and look picture-perfect. These days the town has a thriving art community and is very proud of their library. Between October and February, Haines is home to the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles. I saw photos of eagles looking like they were remaking “The Birds,” only with all bald eagles--trees covered in ‘em.

One street held a small sign: “Canada,” it said, with an arrow. The border was about 20 miles away.

My excursion was only 3 hours. Two retired ladies who were enthusiastic hunters and fisherwomen, took us out along the Chilkat River to look for bears. They knew the bears by name and personality. This was the season for one of the 5 kinds of salmon, and there was a salmon-counting station, a weir, that stretched across the river. You couldn’t park near it because the bears often used the weir to grab dead or dying fish and cars would spook them. These would be grizzlies, of course, since grizzlies like to fish and black bears prefer the berries on the upper mountain slopes.
The weir.

The ranger sits at the middle of the weir counting the various number of salmon. They’ve trained the bears not to come near their spot, and neither species bothers the other. The bear mamas teach their kids to avoid the center as well. This time of year is when the pink salmon have finished spawning, and they travel downstream to die. The weir catches a lot of them, and the bears gather them up, easy pickings.

Watch where you walk. There are half-carcasses of salmon everywhere.

It’s a beautiful river and the road ends at a park, where our bus driver yelled at some kids not to run, because that will catch a bear’s attention.

Our guide reiterated what the one in Denali had said: Bears mate in early spring. A male will kill young bears because their presence will prevent fertilization in the mama bear. Like I said: mate in early spring. But the female’s body waits to see how prepared she is for winter, so fertilization doesn’t take place until fall, when her body will either decide she’s not ready to have a kid, or will fertilize up to three eggs. The babies are born while Mama’s in hibernation: tiny, hairless things. By the time Mama gets up they’re the size of puppies and are covered with thick fur. At age 3, Mama kicks them out of her territory.

Our guide also told us about the ferry that runs in the area. It takes three days to do its route. She takes it twice a year, due to the dearth of supplies in Haines, to Juneau, where she hits a Costco and jams her vehicle to the rafters. With that done, she’s fine.

Juneau was our next stop, a nice, modern town that is cut off from everything. We saw the “dirty SOB” : the State Office Building that is COVERED with dark gray blech. Why doesn’t anyone clean it?

We took a bus to see the famous Mendenhall Glacier but frankly, I was glaciered out. Got some nice pictures. There’s a pretty waterfall next to the glacier, but we weren’t there long enough to hike down to see it. The Mendenhall retreats about 20 ft/year. The large lake it sits on wasn’t even there a century ago!

From there it was out to the docks – we were going whale watching! By now a cold rain was falling hard, but we were inside, they had heat, and the hot drinks were free. (On the return trip the rain had begun to leak inside next to my seat, but there were plenty empty seats to move to.)

There were several boats doing the same watch in the Saginaw Channel, and they all kept in radio contact with each other. We didn’t want to alarm the whales by having too many boats clustered, though there was one whale – I forget her name – who loved to show off for the tourists and showed up every day to buzz the boats. We saw a handful of humpbacks! You’d see them spout, then everyone would go crazy and the captain would keep watch up where he was, and then sometimes –a whale body would appear! Sometimes the tail would come up and flip, and the whale would dive. Wow!

We also saw sea lions as well as seals, which we were told were on the bottom of the food chain in the area. Poor seals.

We stopped for a fair-to-middlin’ lunch, and then went back to Juneau. One of the men behind me said to his wife, “I’m cruised out.” After a few days on a gung-ho vacation that happens. I’d guess the optimum touring vacation is 7 days.

I’d planned on taking a trip on Juneau’s tram up the side of the mountain. Travelogues had said that on a clear day you could see miles down the bay. Today I couldn’t even see the top of the tramway. Instead I shopped for a bit. Saw a cheap-looking necklace that I might be able to stand, and went in to ask the price. $6000? Thank you and have a good day. Whew!

There were expensive jewelry places at every stop along the way. These cruise people must have a LOT more money than I do!

At Ketchikan we came upon a traffic jam. Four cruise ships were already parked at the four slots of the dock. We waited in the bay, “tendering” people to shore via lifeboats. Another cruise ship sidled up to us and snuck its sneaky way into a berth that was emptying. Hey, we were here first! I watched a steady stream of small planes landing and taking off from some invisible, watery landing strip that lay between the parked ships and ours. The planes maneuvered REALLY close to the docked ships. How is this controlled so no one runs into another? Finally another ship left and, after all our port-side lifeboats returned and were secured, we docked without running into either another ship or a plane.
Sneaking up...
Ketchikan runway.

Ketchikan boasts 153” of rain a year. Our trolley driver made rude noises Seattle’s way, calling the people there a bunch of… ahem… because they complained about how much rain they had. At most of these stops in Alaska the towns got 4-6 feet of snow per year, but up on top of the mountains, 20 feet was just the beginning of what could fall. Ouch!
That's Mr. Seward with the ugly blue hat (and the three marks).

I went on a short trolley ride (other passengers complained because it cost about $20 and only lasted an hour) that took us briefly around town – really, not that much to see – and set us down at a park that had a lot of totem poles. Ketchikan has the most in the world. One of them depicts William Henry Seward, who is pictured unflatteringly with three marks against him noted. Apparently he’d been wined and dined and gifted with significant fortunes of treasures by three local chieftains when he’d visited, and in return he’d given… nothing. So he’s enshrined as the World’s Worst Guest, as a warning to others.

One of the town’s roads was constructed entirely of wood. There’s another very picturesque road, Creek Street, that is constructed on docking though it doesn’t stick out over the harbor; it’s just above the creek. Cool beans! I’ll do a painting of it soon.

That afternoon, lying flat on my back at the acupuncturist, I wondered where that faint wheezing noise was coming from. Was that me? Must be the position. That night at the Pinnacle Grill I coughed. Where’d that come from? And then coughed again. That was odd. The big man at the table in front of me had a coughing fit. Must keep away from him!

The next day was At Sea. I discovered that DayQuil cost $18 in the little on-ship store. Robbery! But I paid it. I also stole the extra box of Kleenex from my cabin. At disembarking, I sat next to a very, very sick lady who lay across her husband’s lap. She’d been quarantined for the past five days, and said the nurse blamed it on the ship's previous trip to South America.

But my trip last year to Britain had resulted in me getting a bad flu on the way home. Now this trip, same thing. What did they have in common? AUSTRALIANS. Australia was having its worst flu season ever. DARNED AUSSIES!

I did have the presence of mind to arrange for my hop-on, hop-off bus tour to be postponed until the next day and then left to find a cab. It took me to my hotel -- $400/night. I was staying for free on points! ALWAYS GET THOSE FREE HOTEL CARDS! They come with DEALS. I begged the front desk to get me a room asap. They asked me what special stuff I needed. “A bed,” I replied. I was in it within an hour.
Wow -- this guy was using a magnifying glass to BURN
artistic designs into wood!

I was in Vancouver, stuck in my hotel room! It didn’t look like things were going to get better with me. In fact, I was rather worried. I used the hotel directory to call their doctor on call. He had a recording saying he was out, but to leave a message. Unfortunately you could only leave your phone number, so I called downstairs and explained the situation, so if he called, they’d direct him to my room. “Dr. X?” the guy at the desk said. “We don’t have a guest by that name.”

“No, he’s your doctor on call. He’s listed in your hotel directory.”

“Really? Hotel directory?” I had to convince the guy, who still sounded doubtful. (And no, the doctor never returned my call.) So I asked him where the nearest Urgent Care center was. “What’s that?” The next day I saw several in the city. But I finally got him to recall that there was a pharmacy a few blocks away. I dragged myself into the city, a Typhoid Mary, to find it. There I had a nice conversation with the druggist, who showed me two sets of shelves, each with the same products… except that the one on the right only contained sugar-free stuff. I got drugs from there.

Hit Subway on the way back, figuring that surely I must get hungry at some point. I hadn't eaten since the previous night. Slept some more, even though I ran the risk of sleeping too much. Nope, not with this crap. I was so tired I forgot to lock my door! The next morning I wondered if perhaps I should stay an extra day in Vancouver so I wouldn’t be sick as a dog for the trip home. Asked what the cheapest rooms were at this hotel. $400. Pshee. Checked other hotels in the area and the thought of transferring my luggage made me even sicker. At 9 AM I asked the desk for a wakeup call at 10, an hour before check-out time. At that point I ate two bites of my sandwich (I was unwilling to toss it in the trash completely wasted) and dragged my butt out into Vancouver.

Thank the universe! I was awake. My nose was running a bit, I was coughing a little, but for that afternoon I felt fairly well. The bus was wide open; all windows, including the roof, had been removed. It was only a bother along one short stretch of breezy shoreline, because it was a beautiful summer day in the city!

VANCOUVER IS GORGEOUS! The harbor, the mountains, the parks, the public statues, the glass skyscrapers next to Victorian buildings, and all the cleanliness! People were out in droves bicycling or just walking, enjoying the day. The bus driver did take note of the “bad part of town” as we went through it, with drugged people passed out or about to every few feet, but that passed quickly. Down in Gastown (named after “Gassy Jack” [this meant he liked to jabber, not that he had intestinal problems] Deighton) I saw the world’s only steam-powered clock, which is a tourist highlight. I got off to hit Starbucks and some souvenir stores, then got back on the same bus (they take a 20 minute break at that point) and continued around the town. Lovely. Lovely! If the place weren’t so expensive to live…

It was supposedly a three-hour tour and I thought twice around the city would take me up to time to leave for the airport. But the second time at Gastown the driver announced that the bus’ day ended at the port a couple stops ahead. Good enough, as the tour had gone well beyond its three-hour estimate and we were now into late afternoon. I got off at the port, found a cab, retrieved my luggage from the hotel, and made my way to the airport.

But San Francisco had – would you believe it? – fog. We weren’t leaving from Vancouver until SF cleared up. A guy behind me said that the pilot on his flight had laid down the law that he was leaving at 8 PM, come what may. I went to the counter and asked when my flight would leave. Argh. Would I get into RDU in the morning if I took it? The very young lady smiled at me, batted her eyelashes, and said, “No.”

Just “No.”

Ah, customer service.

“Well, how do I get there? I need to be there tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, really?” She acted like she’d never heard such a thing, no one had ever made such a request. After a full ten, maybe fifteen minutes of her type type typing, she got me transferred to the flight that had been scheduled just before mine (the one with the obstinant pilot). I went to sit with that crowd. You know, you’d think they’d have some kind of easier computer thing to transfer passengers. Hit two buttons – presto. Hit another one, and their luggage travels with them. Am I just being too radical here?

I think we left at 7:45. What would happen when we hit SF? The outgoing planes were just as delayed as we were, so maybe… Still, having to take an extra day in SF wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

We had to wait again for our connecting plane to arrive. Eventually it did. Again I had one of those first-in-the-cabin seats where you can’t hold anything, but the flight attendant gave in to me begging to hold on to my box of Kleenex. “I’ll hold it like a puppy,” I promised.

I hadn’t been able to eat the snack they’d given us on the first flight (had it a few days later; a fine cookie), and turned up my nose at what was likely a palatable dinner on this flight. I honked and coughed and tried to aim away from everyone. My throat was dry as a bone, and I succeeded twice in attracting the attention of the attendant so I could get something to drink. I could barely swallow, but boy! It was so nice to get something liquid into me!

Home again, home again, practically at the original time I was supposed to arrive. When I was in Glacier Bay I’d imagined popping my luggage in my car then ripping off my tee shirt to reveal the super suit beneath. I’d bound off to north Raleigh, stopping at Jerry’s Artarama to pick up some enormous canvases so I could zip back home, immediately painting masterpieces of glaciers!

Ah, didn’t quite do that. Don’t know how I managed it but I drove in the opposite direction of Jerry’s. I was swerving all over the highway by the time I got within five miles of home. Good thing it was after morning rush hour; there was almost no one else on the road. Exhausted!

I managed to climb to my front door and then threw myself into bed. I de-coma-fied a few hours later to empty the car. My neighbor came over to tell me he’d fed my fish while I was away, but I had to stand there and say, “Uhh muh gruhh.” COUGH COUGH HONK! “Duh argh.” I think he got the message. It’s been 2 1/12 weeks and I think I might be able to make it over to his place to thank him coherently for his efforts and present him with a deck of genuine Alaska cards. Well, maybe tomorrow.

The moral to this all is: GET YOUR FLU SHOT! And buy the beverage package.

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