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.

Along the way it seemed that every time we turned a corner, our driver would give a new name to the mountains that surround the city. It turns out that you can see six mountain ranges from Anchorage: the Chugach, Kenai, Talkeetna, Tordrillo, Alaska, and Aleutians.

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!

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