Yes it is north to Alaska and I can tell you the rush is on because it is a highway of cruise ships making their way up the Inside Passage and our first stop in Ketchikan has five ships lined up like it is a parking lot. It is a misty day with a little drizzle in Ketchikan but I can tell y’all that this place gets around 4 metres of rain a year so it seems to me that arriving here on a brilliantly sunny day would be a very rare thing. Ketchikan has a resident population of about 8,000 but in the tourist season which runs from 1 May until 30 September that population rises to 13,500. In the peak summer months the temperatures “peak” to between 15-18 degrees! Great – the sunscreen and big hat can go back into the bag!
We have chosen to do a back country jeep and canoe safari – were we in lala land when we booked this? Not sure, but we did research it so off we go. The first step is to get the life jackets on, grab the long paddles and step gingerly into the large 20-person canoe but it is a source of relief to find there are only 12 of us because I sure as heck do not want to bop someone on the head with this long paddle! Off we go on this large lake with the red cedars and western hemlock trees shrouded in mist and we paddle about 1 km. We then pull into a little jetty and it looks like there is absolutely nothing there (maybe a bear perhaps?) Out of the canoe we climb and walk up the quaint boardwalk and lo and behold there is a large gazebo with a fire roaring and crab chowder and hot chocolate warming up, fresh rolls and freshly smoked salmon on the table and a true Alaskan wild guy bouncing around to serve us. We did a very interesting nature walk in a loop around the bush, gobbled down some chowder and hot chocolate and back into the canoe to paddle back. There was a row of jeeps lined up next and we were paired with a Swiss couple and we happily handed the driving over to them. Off we went in a long line with guides in front and back jeeps and 2-way radios to communicate between vehicles. We then drove on a disused logging road and then climbed a hill on a track that was so narrow the trees were literally brushing the windscreen, the puddles were like small lakes and the boulders at times meant the driver had to swerve and we bumped around in the back like a pair of out-of-control Barry Crumps! The young Swiss lady was going “ya ya ya yiiiiiii, yaaaaaa” and it was hilarious. Every so often she seemed to give her partner some instructions in German (or maybe she was telling him that the oldies in the back seat might have a heart attack if this bumping kept up!)
We survived the journey and came back into town to have a look at the famous “Creek Street” – an historic boardwalk which was a Red Light District during the Gold Rush. The shops are propped up on stilts above the water and there are some huge salmon running here just now. The houses propped on the hill by the dock are quirky wooden houses, painted in all sorts of colours and some have hundreds of stairs to get up to them. Many are in need of a repaint but whenever would they get a fine day to get up the ladder? We set sail at 2 pm and sit comfortably on our deck with our cuppa to observe all the action as our ship departs Ketchikan to sail the 240 miles to Juneau where we arrive in the morning. One little piece of trivia we were told about was that Walmart opened a branch here in 2000. There was so much excitement all around that people travelled from far and wide and they sold out of everything in one day. They had to wait a week to get stocks in by boat so they could reopen!
We wake up to another misty morning here in Alaska in the city of Juneau – the only US state capital accessible only by boat or plane. Juneau is the rainiest city in the USA with approx 4 metres of rain per annum. It has a population of 8,200 residents but that increases in the cruise season to 14,000 so similar to Ketchikan in that respect. If you travel the roads here you soon get to the end of the road because Juneau is surrounded by Icefields and hundreds of glaciers. We set off after breakfast for a walk into town to explore this bustling metropolis – it is the commercial centre of Alaska. There are more boats than cars here and the airport is on an island so you actually need to get a boat to get to the “international” airport – it has that status because occasionally a chartered international flight may possibly land here. It may land but I don’t know how it takes off because it looks a pretty short runway to me. The shops open here 1 May and 90% of them close 30 Sept at the end of the cruise ship season. However, because the second smallest Walmart in the world is here and supermarket, drug store etc many Alaskans will pay the exhorbitant fees to get a boat here or a float plane to stock up on essential supplies every 3 months or so. We have been told that Princess cruise line actually owns a large number of shops in the towns up this coast and, for some crazy reason, there is an absolute abundance of jewellery shops in every town.
We set off today to the Menenhall Glacier – a glacier which is the overflow from a huge icefield and sadly receding and, like most glaciers, it moves and displays a massive power of erosion as it has ground its way through the landscape. We do a nice 2 mile walk to the glacier and back and a lovely waterfall and then a visit to the rather lovely Visitors’ Centre. The glacier is only 30 minutes out of town and on the way back we visit the Glacier Gardens which is a unique garden of many upside-down trees (replanted dead trees) planted like huge flower pots and we climb up high in special vehicles to get to the top of this special rainforest to see views of Juneau.
This morning the boss pulls back the curtains and we are almost hard up against a Rocky Mountain surprise surprise! The sun is also shining – another surprise. Our adventure today is to the Yukon Suspension Bridge and White Pass Summit so off we set to cross the border into Canada and explore a small part of the Yukon – yee ha! We discover that the water here at the wharf is an astounding 500 feet deep and it is 2000 feet deep in the channel so I think we are OK! We are amazed at the “graffiti” on this rocky wall but we discover that the tradition has been that when a ship has arrived here for the first time the adoring crew have painted the name of the ship and the captain over many years and this has formed a patchwork of history of the ships that have come here.
This little town has 900 residents and is a heritage town where the authorities control the “look” of the shop fronts and people do not have physical addresses, churches are painted different colours – the red church, the blue church etc, there are no doctors or dentists but a medical practice run by nurses, the average price of these small simple houses is expensive at around $US250,000 and the “international” airport is the largest unmanned airport in the world! Heaven forbid!
Off we set down the Klondike Highway built in 1978 and we climb 3992 feet (I am a little “over” the feet/inches/gallons thing here and wish they would change to metric because my brain is doing the sums all the time) to get up to White Pass Summit in the sub-alpine tundra. Well, I can tell y’all that it certainly was White Pass Summit this morning because we didn’t see anything but thick thick fog. Now just to wake us up the lady in the seat in front of us suddenly decides to change her clothes and she stripped down on top to less than you would think would happen on a coach full of people. Can you honestly belieeeeeve it? And don’t get excited because I didn’t have the camera ready for that!
We arrive at the border to Canada and this little outpost is in an area which gets 36 feet of snow in winter. Now honestly – would you want to be posted here for 2 years checking passports and frowning at people all the time? There are snow marker poles all the way up the side of the road here because, miraculously, the authorities keep this road open all year – what? What the devil do you ride in I wonder? We arrive in Fraser, British Columbia which has a population of 15 (not a typo). Well, I guess they know one another pretty well. The black spruce trees are stunted, crooked, are almost hugging each other they are so close together, have very little foliage and are struggling in this harsh climate but as we wind our way down through the valley they are looking a little healthier. In this rather beautiful area there are lots of very blue lakes, very high sawtooth mountains of grey granite striped with a few streaks of iron oxide and Quartz. We travel on through the Yukon to Carcross which was formerly known as Caribou Crossing with a population of 300 hardy souls who manage to survive an eight-month long winter. To our huge surprise we come upon a 1 square mile desert which millions of years ago used to be the ocean floor. I must mention that there is often mention here of climate change and what it is doing to the ecosystem here. At Caribou Crossing we get a “small” lunch (yeah right) of the biggest chicken thigh we have ever seen, baked potato, coleslaw and donuts.
After we have digested the little snack we spend time with the Alaskan huskies, bred for dog mushing including Chinook and Kenai which gave us a thrill. It was interesting to see and read about how they are treated, trained, fed etc for this national sport. We now look forward to two days of cruising in Glacier Bay and College Fjord before we disembark in Whittier to begin eight days on land here in this fascinating place called Alaska.
Glacier Bay on a misty day