Thursday, August 4, 2016

North To Alaska

Day 5

Day 5 of our vacation brought us to Skagway. We woke up to a view of the train and Skagway's well know ship graffiti. For years, ship's crew members have painted the ship's names and flags on the side of the cliff alongside the dock in Skagway.

If you've never been on a cruise, you may not be familiar with the huge variety of excursions when the ship is in port. We are not big on excursions. They can really run up the cost of your vacation  higher than you planned. Plus, we enjoy getting into the towns and doing what we want to do on our own schedule. Our Alaska cruise had an exceptional number of excursions available and it seemed that everyone was doing excursions at every port. We were warned that, in Alaska, excursions go rain or shine. If you book in advance, you can't cancel even if the weather is bad. They will not refund your fees if the pilot decides to fly or the captain feels like it's safe to go out on his boat, you are stuck.

The only excursion we booked in advance was a trip on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. We chose the White Pass Summit Excursion. It's only a 40-mile round trip and it takes a couple of hours. Cruise ship passengers get dockside service which is very convenient. We literally walked off of the ship and onto the train.

The White Pass & Yukon Railroad is a historical civil engineering landmark (so is the Eiffel Tower). It was built during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and was an amazing fete of engineering. There were two crews working, one from the North and one from the South. It took 26 months to lay 120 miles of tracks. Thirty-five thousand men worked on the project and used 450 tons of explosives. They worked year-round in deep snow and temperatures as low as 60 below.

The scenery and views on the trip are nothing short of spectacular. When the train topped out at the summit, we were actually in Canada. We were not allowed to get off the train, but we were parked there for about 15 minutes while they changed engines for the trip back down. On the way back, Patrick and some of the other passengers saw a bear eating berries along the side of the track. I didn't look fast enough.

The most interesting part of the trip was that you can actually still see the trail that the gold miners followed into the Klondike. So many men climbed the trail in the late 19th century that the trail is still visible today. We were very interested to learn that Canadian officials required each prospector to carry 2,000 pounds of food and equipment with them on the trip to the gold fields. This was to ensure that they didn't starve. So many pack animals died along the way that part of the trail became known as "Dead Horse Trail."

The center photo on the bottom row shows the original wooden bridge next to the new steel bridge.

We were back in Skagway around noon so we got a ride into town on the S.M.A.R.T. which is the municipal bus system. You can ride all day with a $5 pass. The cruise ship dock is so close to town that we really could have walked. It could not have been half a mile.

Downtown Skagway features boardwalks and restored buildings. One of the most interesting places is the Arctic Brotherhood Hall which is covered with 8,883 pieces of driftwood. It is the most photographed building in Alaska. Skagway is also home to the oldest hotel in Alaska, the Golden North Hotel.

Skagway was the gateway to the Yukon Gold Rush. During the Gold Rush the population of Skagway swelled to more than 10,000. Today its population is less than 1,000 and it's economy is totally dependent on the tourist and cruise industry. One of the shopkeepers told us that they basically have to earn their entire annual income in the three month summer season.

We did a little shopping and ate lunch. There are some really nice shopping options that feature local artisans. We were also interested to learn from one of the shop owners that some of the scenes from the old movie North To Alaska were set right outside on the street in Skagway. It was easy to imagine John Wayne walking down that street.

We really enjoyed the day in Skagway and our trip to the White Pass Summit. We were also delighted to find a coffee shop that served Starbucks Coffee. However, it was not actually a Starbucks outlet. We did sit and enjoy a hot cup of coffee before catching the bus back to the ship.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Some Personal Notes & Adventures in Alaska

I continue to be so far behind in getting my travel stories published. Since we returned from vacation, we've been crazy-busy. We spent a weekend with Katy's family in San Antonio. We've been to Houston to see the boys for a long weekend. We try not to go more than a month without seeing them in person. We want them to know us and be comfortable with us. We've had the princesses down for a visit. I've had a couple of really big sewing projects to do. I went back to Houston to take care of the twins so the Aggie Engineers could get away for a long weekend. It just seems like time gets away from me.

We also had to make a trip to Waxahachie to celebrate the life of Patrick's sweet Aunt Carrie as she was laid to rest. She was an amazing cook and raised a beautiful family. I never once saw her when she didn't bring a smile to my face. I will miss her at our family gatherings. I'm not sure what Uncle Paul will do without her, but I know his family will be there for him. Rest in Peace, Aunt Carrie.

Only two days after that, we celebrated the life of my good friend Beverly's husband, Tim. Tim was an Alzheimers patient who had been in a full-time care situation for a while. Beverly was completely devoted to making sure that Tim was taken care of. I know it was hard on the entire family. Tim and Beverly were so much fun to be around. They always had a gentle "war of words" going between them. They played off of each other like only couples who have been together for many years can do. He once told me I didn't have to worry that something was going to break Bev's heart, because she didn't have one. I will always remember how they gave each other a hard time, but he was always at her beck and call. Anything she needed, she only had to ask. Tim is the first of our group of friends to pass. I guess we've reached that age. Rest in Peace, Tim.

So now, back to our vacation.

Day 4

On Sunday we arrived in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. Even though it is the second most populous city in Alaska, it's still kind of a small town with a population of around 32,000. It is also the second largest city in the USA in terms of area. It's larger in area than both Delaware and Rhode Island. One of the unique things about Juneau is that it is not connected to the rest of Alaska by road or highway. The only access to Juneau is by boat or airplane. Since our trip mostly hugged the coast, we found this to be the case in a lot of places. Often the houses we saw along the coast had a boat or seaplane parked with no indication of a car or driveway. It's definitely a different lifestyle.

Our first order of business was trying to get my camera repaired or buying a new camera.

Right in the port area, just where we got off the ship, is a Visitor Information Center. We headed straight there to ask about a place that might be open on Sunday. The visitor's center was staffed by two really nice and amazingly helpful volunteers. It turned out that one of them was the mailman. He knew everyone and he knew where everything was right down to their actual address. When I told him what I needed he said, "I'll find someone who can help you." He took out his cell phone and started calling people. Then he marked two or three locations on the visitors map and told us how to get to each one. All were within walking distance so we headed off down the street.

We got help at the very first one, less than a one block walk. He took a look at my Nikon and knew immediately what the problem was. He explained that the Nikon J-1 has a sensor that often goes bad. Nikon will fix it, but in his experience, it doesn't stay fixed. He recommended not putting any more money into that camera because the problem was likely to recur.

He showed us several inexpensive options for a replacement camera. We bought a little point and shoot and were on our way in less than thirty minutes.

We had several things we wanted to see and do while we were in Anchorage. First thing was a trip out to Mendenhall Glacier. We took a shuttle bus which was very inexpensive and only about a ten minute ride. On the trip out we saw dozens of eagles along the waterfront. Our bus driver was a local artist whose work is displayed in the Anchorage Museum. He was very entertaining and funny. He gave us our first lesson about the Tlingit Indians. Tlingit is actually pronounced like klink-it. All members of the tribe are either Ravens or Eagles. He explained that Eagles marry Ravens and Ravens marry Eagles. Whether you are an Eagle or a Raven is determined by your mother.

Upon arrival at the glacier, we took a short hike on the one of the nature trails. When we arrived it was about 60 degrees and drizzly. We were hoping to see some wildlife, but didn't have any luck. But the hike was quiet and peaceful. We only saw a couple of other people on that trail. Next up was a hike out to the waterfall and glacier.

It's roughly a mile hike out to Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Glacier. A two-mile hike didn't seem like very far, but it was very tiring. We were definitely ready to sit down when we were finished. This trail was fairly crowded with a lot of people making the hike. I'm a slow walker so we got passed a lot. It was definitely worth the hike. It was the closest we got to any glacier; we saw about five glaciers during our stay in Alaska. The waterfall was beautiful. What doesn't show up in any of the pictures is that there were dozens of little birds who kept flying right into the front of the falls. They were small, about the size of the purple martins we see in our neighborhood. We could not figure out what they were doing. The native flora was so different from what we see in South Texas. I really enjoyed seeing it everywhere we went.

We took the shuttle back to the port area and took a tram ride up to the top of Mt. Roberts. It's an 1800 foot ride up one of the most vertical trams in the world and runs right through the rain forest. At the top are trails, a gift shop, a theater, and a restaurant. We had planned to do a little more hiking, but just as we got to the top, a thunderstorm blew in. It was rainy and windy. Instead of hiking we decided to have some lunch at the Timberline Bar and Grill and take in the movie. We split an order of crab nachos which were delicious and more than both of us could eat. The views of downtown Juneau and Gastineau Channel are spectacular. There is also a Raptor Center for the rehabilitation of injured eagles on this mountain. The theater features a show about the native Alaskans and how they have worked to preserve their language and their heritage. It was very interesting and we learned even more about the Tlingit culture.

Because it was raining, we did not get to explore the area outside of the restaurant and visitors center. With a good wind blowing, the ride back down the tram was rough. At this point, we decided to head back to the ship and get out of the rain. It was a good day.


Friday, July 1, 2016

Our Alaska Adventure

Day 3

The third day of our vacation was a sea day with no port of call. The highlight of the day was a sail by of the Hubbard Glacier. This was the only day of the whole trip that was not sunny and warm at least part of the day. The day was drizzly and cold. This was the view from our stateroom as we approached the glacier. The clouds hung low over the mountains and the water was littered with ice.

One of the reasons we chose Celebrity for our cruise was that it offers an educational component with a naturalist on board to provide information and answer questions. The evening before we visited Hubbard, we attended a one-hour presentation about glaciers by Celebrity's resident naturalist, Milos Radakovich. He also provided loud-speaker narration as we sailed into Disenchantment Bay past the Hubbard Glacier.

Hubbard is the largest tidewater glacier in North America. It flows 76 miles from its source in the Yukon into Disenchantment Bay and is 1,200 feet deep. We sailed quite close to the glacier and then the captain cut the engines to allow us to hear the glacier. I had no idea that a glacier makes noise, but it does. It creeks and crackles and groans as it moves and calves. The naturalist told us that it's not unusual for it to be rainy or drizzly in this locale because, in his words "the glacier makes its own weather."

Just a reminder that, at this point in our trip, our photography was limited to our cell phones and Kindle Fire cameras. Some of it is not too bad considering.

I was very surprised by the amount of color visible in the glacier. I had read some tips for photographing them and trying to capture the beautiful blue that is the dominant color, but it was more beautiful than I expected. We were lucky that it was an overcast day which made the blue easier to capture with a cell phone camera.

One of the most interesting things to me was the line in the water where the glacial melt meets with salt water. It's very delineated and interesting to see.

Here we are on our balcony sailing past the glacier and the icebergs.

 One of the concerns I had in booking our trip was that I wanted to be sure we got a cabin with a balcony where we could be sure we had a good view. It turned out not to matter at all. The passages that we sailed from Seward to Vancouver were narrow enough that there were beautiful views on both sides of the ship. And, at the glacier, the captain made a turn and sailed in both directions so it was visible from both sides of the ship.

The rest of the day was spent having fun on the ship. Every afternoon between 3 and 5 o'clock, if we were on the ship, they brought hors d'oeuvres to our cabin. It was always something very light and savory. We really enjoyed it. In the evenings we had dinner at 7 o'clock in Blu the ship's Aqua Class restaurant. The top picture is our stateroom on deck 7 of the Celebrity Millennium.

Both the food and the service were amazing. I could get used to this kind of life.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

North to Alaska and Home Again

Days 1 & 2

We've been home for a little more than a week from our amazing adventure to Alaska. It turned out to be one of our best trips ever. It truly was great.

We started out early on Wednesday morning with a drive from Corpus Christi to Burleson where we spent the night with Danny and Jeanne. We left home for the five and a half hour drive as Texas was in the midst of one of its worst rain and flood events ever. We were very lucky to make it all the way without encountering any bad weather.

We got on the road early and stopped in San Marcos for a little shopping and lunch at Centerpoint Station. We love their hamburgers. We shared one of their cheeseburgers and an order of onion rings. They were delicious and sharing a burger left us room for kolaches later.

This was probably the most leisurely drive we've ever taken to the DFW area. Traffic was light and we were trying not to arrive before Danny and Jeanne got home from work so we took our time.

If you drive through this part of Texas, you probably know that stopping for kolaches in West, Texas is almost obligatory. We usually stop at the Czech Stop. This time we decided to try a place we have not stopped before, Slovacek's. Oh my goodness! Their kolaches are outstanding. My favorite was peaches and cream. We picked up a dozen to share with Danny and Jeanne. I will also note that Slovacek's has very nice facilities and very clean bathrooms. That's a big plus for me. We liked it so much that we stopped again on the way home.

We got to Burleson shortly after Danny and Jeanne got home from work and we all went out for Mexican food. We enjoyed a nice visit with them that evening.

On Thursday, Danny drove us to DFW around lunch time and dropped us off for our 3:15 flight to Anchorage. This is where our trip took a turn.

We were pleasantly surprised not to encounter long lines at the TSA checkpoint. The TSA Pre-check turned out to be a very good investment. But at DFW, even the regular checkpoints were not too bad that day. The boards were showing that our flight would depart on time. So we went upstairs and had a nice lunch before heading to the gate. As I mentioned before, Texas was in the middle of a weather "event." Shortly after we boarded, there was an announcement that the flight was holding for passengers whose connecting flights were weather delayed. We waited about an hour on the plane. The other passengers arrived, boarded, and we were all ready for take off. But not really!

The next announcement was that we were now delayed because the plane had mechanical problems. They were working on it and expected to be underway in a short time. The next announcement informed us that they had tried to locate another plane but none were available. The problem was with the plane's water pump. The plane would operate fine, but there was no water for drinking or washing hands. After another wait, we saw them bringing cases of water and boxes of hand sanitizer on board. In total, we sat on the plane for about three and a half hours before we finally took off.

We finally arrived in Anchorage at 1 a.m. Thursday. Taking into account the time zone changes, our bodies felt like it was 4 a.m. We got a taxi to the Hilton, checked in, took showers, went to bed for what was basically a nap. We had to board the train at 6 a.m. So we were up at 5 a.m., dressed and out the door by 5:30 for a three-block walk to the train station.

Our travel books said that it is an easy walk, which is true. We weren't too worried about the walk because all our luggage rolls.  What the travel books left out is that the last part of the walk is a large staircase down the side of a hill.  We made it, luggage and all, with time enough to grab some coffee in the station, snap a couple of pictures, and board the train. We were happy that our luggage was checked from this station all the way to the cruise ship. That meant we could spend the afternoon in Seward without having to keep up with our luggage.

The train ride was gorgeous! We took the Coastal Classic and booked Adventure Class tickets. That gave us access to a domed viewing car. This stretch of railroad is considered the most beautiful in Alaska. It runs along the Turnagain Arm into the Kenai Mountains from Anchorage to Seward. The train provided a "tour guide" who provided narration along the way.

We saw dall sheep and our first bald eagles from the train. We saw many more eagles during our week in Alaska.

One of the most interesting things we saw from the train were stands of dead trees that were the result of the Great Alaskan Earthquake (also known as the Good Friday Earthquake) in 1964. The earthquake registered 9.2 on the Richter Scale and caused the ground around the Turnagain Arm to drop as much as 8 feet. The salt water that covered the ground around the trees both killed them and preserved them. In other places the ground was thrust upward more than 30 feet.

I had never heard of this earthquake, but was kind of fascinated by the small bit of information they provided. I have since done a little research and learned that it was the second strongest earthquake ever recorded. It caused tsunami waves is more than twenty countries. More than 139 deaths were attributed to the quake and tsunamis in Oregon and California as well as Alaska. It wiped out several native villages and caused a large number of landslides. If you want to read more about it check out the Wikipedia listing for the 1964 Alaska earthquake.

About this time is where the second (and thankfully last) problem of our vacation occurred. About two hours into the train ride, my two-year-old Nikon 1 J1 DSLR camera stopped working.  Every time I turned it on I got a lens error and it would not take any more pictures. So we were reduced to using the cameras on our phones, potentially for the rest of the trip. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed.

When we arrived in Seward, we got our first glimpse of the Celebrity Millennium. We were happy to see that the cruise line provided buses from the train to the ship. The travel books had indicated that we would have to take a local shuttle which runs on a 30 minute schedule. We were also pleasantly surprised to be invited to board the ship early and have lunch aboard before venturing into Seward. It was only about noon and our staterooms would not be ready until 3 o'clock, but the main dining room was open, which was nice. We ate lunch and hopped on a shuttle into downtown Seward in search of a camera shop or electronics store. No luck. You could buy jewelry, gems, t-shirts, and souvenirs, but there was no place to buy a camera or to have one repaired.

Seward is "the mural capital of Alaska" with somewhere around 35 murals located in the city. They paint a new mural each year during their annual mural festival. You can see all of them at the Seward Mural Society's web site. They were really interesting and beautiful.

Seward is a small town of only about 2,500 people. There is approximately one coffee shop for every resident. I exaggerate, but seriously, I counted more than twelve on the main drag alone. We found this to be true pretty much everywhere in Alaska. There is always coffee. It was also here that we first encountered Alaska's amazing vegetation. It doesn't really get dark this time of year, so the plants just absorb all that sunlight and produce really big flowers, fruit, and vegetables. The poppy in the photo below was roughly the size of a dinner plate and, no, that is not an exaggeration. It took me a day or two to figure out that I needed something else in the photos to give some idea of the size.

After looking around a bit and enjoying some of that local coffee, we caught the shuttle and returned to the ship where we checked in to our room for our first evening on the ship. As we boarded, we were greeted with champagne and welcomed aboard.

I was quite impressed with Celebrity's security. They took security photographs on that first day which were loaded into their security system. They used a scan card system any time we got on or off of the ship and we had to remove hats and sunglasses so they could look at the picture on their monitor and confirm our identity. Anything we brought on board had to go through an airport-type security every time. My bionic husband with his artificial knee, metal plates in his leg, and titanium heart valve, set off the metal detector every single time both on the ship and in the airport. It's no big deal, he's used to it now.

Celebrity was also quite serious about cleanliness. Free-standing hand sanitizer dispensers were located all over the ship in every lobby and outside every elevator and dining area. Upon returning to the ship each day we were greeted by crew members holding large sanitizer dispensers. They used it on every single person, always saying "Happy, happy, washy, washy!"

The flight delay from DFW to Anchorage and my camera failure were the only things that went wrong on a trip that totaled about ten days. I can't really complain about that. I'll tell you more in the next few days. And, yes, there are lots more photos coming.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Our Bags Are Packed

I'm sitting in my living room with my feet propped up. My laundry is done and my house is clean. I spent most of the past two days getting ready for vacation. I don't ever remember actually being ready to go this far in advance.

We depart Corpus Christi tomorrow morning. Our first destination is Burleson where we will spend the night with Danny and Jeanne. On Thursday afternoon, we fly out of DFW to Anchorage, Alaska where we will spend the night. Very early on Friday morning we will board the Coastal Classic Railroad for a scenic trip to Seward. In Seward we will board the Celebrity Millennium for a seven night cruise.

Ports of call are Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Vancouver. Our cruise route will include Icy Strait Point and the Hubbard Glacier. We have also booked an excursion on the White Mountain Pass and Yukon Railroad.

As long as I can remember I've dreamed of going to Alaska. This is a bucket-list trip for us. We'll be gone a total of 12 days. By the time we return we will have traveled in cars, planes, taxis, buses, trains, cable cars, an inclinator, and a cruise ship.

I will take my computer along so I can keep a daily travel journal, but I won't be publishing a blog while we are gone. While the cruise line does offer an internet package, it is expensive, and other travelers report that it is spotty at best. So, other than an occasional picture from my phone when we're on shore, I will be unplugged for the next two weeks.

Friday, May 27, 2016

We Blinked

Wasn't this just yesterday?

All of a sudden this happened.

Lookout world, here comes June! She's definitely ready for kindergarten. Is kindergarten ready for her? She does everything with gusto and enthusiasm. There is no doubt that she thinks she can do anything her big sister can do. Most of the time she can. I'm pretty sure she's going to be running the world some day.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hello Again

I know it's been months since I posted. So let's start with a little bit of catch up.

Since I was here last Ezra turned 7 years old in February. This was the first year we didn't go for her birthday party. She had a roller skating party. We did, however, go for her actual birthday. That day was just a family celebration. She has now lost several teeth and is finishing up first grade. She is the spitting image of her mother in looks and temperment.

June turned 5 in April and had a cowgirl-themed birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. She's about to graduate from Pre-K at her private school to kindergarten at the same public school that Ezra attends. She is a firecracker. She thinks she can do everything her big sister can do ... and she usually can.

We did go to San Antonio for June's birthday party which was followed by their school's spring carnival. The weather was perfect and we spent the entire afternoon on the playground.

Ezra and June, along with their friend, Arabella, made their karaoke debut. They actually did very well. I really thought they might have stage fright, but they didn't. They stood in front of the crowd and sang the entire song.

Last weekend both girls learned to ride their bicycles without training wheels. Katy reports that they used a "balance bike" and it took less than 24 hours for both of them learn.

The twins are four months old. They now weigh in at more than 15 pounds each. They are hitting the usual milestones, sleeping well, and laughing a lot. I have finally learned how to tell them apart, most of the time. But I have to see both of them.

No matter where they start out, they end up sleeping close together.

Marie has returned to work in the past two weeks. The twins are cared for at home by a nanny. Nick gets about an hour of Daddy time with them in the afternoons before Marie arrives home. We face-time with them a couple of times a week and we try to see them in real life at least once every 4-6 weeks. We want them to know us and be comfortable with us.

Last weekend we celebrated with family when our niece Camey graduated from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi with a BS in Environmental Science. She has worked hard for this accomplishment and we are all so proud of her. Graduation was held at our local convention center which, for security reasons, doesn't allow bags inside. Therefore, I arrived without my glasses and without my camera. This is the best picture I could get with my phone. We were seated in the top tier of the arena.

TAMUCC is known as "The Island University." Their team mascot is Islanders. The leis worn at graduation  are part of that Islander tradition. Camey graduated Cum Laude and has now moved on to job hunting. We are confident that she'll find a great job and her future will be bright.

Patrick and I are still doing great. This weekend we will meet Danny and Jeanne and some of the Valenta cousins in central Texas to visit a couple of wineries and enjoy some down time. Nick and Marie will come over to Moulton on Saturday afternoon to join us for dinner and bring the twins for a visit. We're looking forward to that.

I'm seven working days from the end of another school year. We'll finish up at noon next Friday. On June 1, Patrick and I will leave Corpus Christi for a vacation trip to Alaska. It's a long way, about 4,500 miles each direction. We'll be gone twelve days. The trip will include planes, trains, cruise ships, cable cars, and automobiles. This is the trip we gave each other in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary last November. We are so excited. Don't worry, you'll be getting a day-by-day recap at some point. This is one of my "bucket-list" items.

I am committing to resurrecting this blog as much as possible. So look for more entries soon.