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.