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July 2001: Silver Wedding in Alaska

Part 1 - Vancouver to Valdez

This year we celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary, so do we have a party like most people or what - no, of course not. We decide on a cruise to Alaska.

Monday 2nd July 2001

Our holiday to Alaska aboard the SS Universe Explorer began today.

We arrived at Heathrow well ahead of time and checked in with Air Canada. When we were supposed to meet the rest of the group we returned to the check in area - but there was no sign of them so we took ourselves off through customs etc. and bought perfume in the duty free shop.

The flight was excellent. Flying north over Britain, over Iceland (which is Green), Greenland (which is covered in ice) and the snow covered northern wastes of Canada. The flight wasn't full so the cabin staff were not rushed and we had a most enjoyable flight, arriving in Vancouver on time. Vancouver airport is really amazing with a huge waterfall in the main arrivals area, together with totem poles (the first of many we were to see).

We were met by a representative who took us by coach to our overnight hotel. By this time we had been up for well over 24 hours so were feeling just a little tired. As we had eaten well on the plane we decided to sit on the balcony of the hotel bar and have a couple of drinks. Alaskan Amber is the local beer - very good.

Tuesday 3rd July – Our Silver Wedding Anniversary

After a good night's sleep and an excellent breakfast we left the hotel for a coach tour of Vancouver, including Queen Elizabeth Park, The Chinese Quarter and Gas Town where we were left for lunch. Food in Canada seems excellent - I wonder what it will be like on the ship? After we had watched the steam clock strike 2 pm the coach picked us up and took us to Canada Place Pier where the Universe Explorer was waiting for us.

The cabin on the ship was large and very comfortable. We found a beautiful arrangement of flowers from the company thanking us for spending our anniversary with them. The ship sailed about 16.15, after we had had lifeboat drill. I hope we don't have to evacuate the ship as we have to go down a deck and fight our way past people who have to go up a deck!

The sun was warm so the obvious thing to do was sit on deck, have a drink and begin to get to know our fellow passengers.

The scenery was beautiful with the fir-tree covered Rockies on the starboard side. Almost from the start we began seeing bald eagles.

We had elected to have 2nd seating dinner so after changing into slightly smarter casual clothes we headed for the dining room. We were seated with 6 Americans! The first night the conversation was a little stilted, we didn't even manage to find out their names! After dinner we found a cosy lounge with a piano and bar. As the lack of sleep was catching up we went to bed fairly early.

 

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Totem Poles near the waterfront in Vancouver
Closer inspection of this statue in Victoria Park reveals that the male subject is ignoring his own wife and 'goosing' the photographer's wife!
A large area of Vancouver is heated by a communal steam supply; even this clock is driven by steam (here it is whistling 2 o'clock)
Leaving Vancouver among the islands of the Inside Passage
Evening falls as we head north-west out of Vancouver, towards Alaska!

Wednesday 4th July

Woke up to sunshine (make the most of it). The scenery was very similar to yesterday, but we were also going through lots of little islands - very reminiscent of Norway. We thought we were up early about 8.00 a.m. but discovered that the Americans generally get up at about 6.00a.m. so we were late! Still we hadn't missed breakfast which was served from 6.30 a.m. through to 10.00 a.m. Later in the cruise we found that some passengers ate continuously following the feeding times round the ship, starting with the buffet breakfast at 6.30, then taking the waiter-service breakfast at 8.00, and so on..

Spent the day wandering around the ship, finding the best places to sit, hearing about the various places we are due to visit and generally having a very relaxing day. The ship is magnificent and totally silent, being the last of the steam-powered American ocean-going ships. While we were changing for dinner we saw a wolf swimming between two of the islands.

Dinner was more enjoyable tonight as the 8 of us began to talk. We also had a cake (for our anniversary) and a song from the restaurant staff.

We spent the rest of the evening in the Navigators’ Bar with Brianne Kelly at the piano. The most requested song was from the film Titanic, “My Heart will go on”. Strange people!

Thursday 5th July

Today is our first port of call at Wrangell, located on the north end of Wrangell Island. We had booked the “Wrangell City Tour”. What a surprise we got when the “tour bus” arrived – it was an American School Bus with very narrow seats! We were to get used to having School Buses take us about on our visits. We found that taking the “tour” was usually the best way to see the various sights in our ports of call. The coach offered "All weather tours", highly appropriate for Alaska. Today we saw the Petroglyphs (primitive designs carved into rocks on the beach), the Museum with collections from the indigenous Tlingit Indian tribe, from the Russians, from the Americans and from the other cultures that have influenced Wrangell’s colourful past, then we visited Shakes Island with Chief Shakes Community House. Chief Shakes was one of the Tlingit leaders from the early 1800s; see how the entrance is built low so that entrants have to stoop; if they are friendly this will mean they pay homage to the Chief, but if they are enemies they are ideally placed for having their heads chopped off! The Tlingits were semi-nomadic; they could take the house to pieces in about half an hour, and would take it with them leaving just the 4 corner posts in the ground for their return.

We also had a little time to look round the shops and check out the children selling garnets on the quayside, then it was back to the ship for an enjoyable evening of food, drink and music with Brianne.

 

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Signpost to everywhere, at Wrangell
Lucky this bear is wooden
The docks at Wrangell - note the stalls selling garnets that the children have collected
The tour bus - this is as luxurious as it gets, folks!
Chief Shakes House (note the low entrance)
Wonderful decoration inside Chief Shakes House

Friday 6th July

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, but you can’t reach it by road! Still I suppose that sums up Alaska – trying to be typical American but maintaining the charm of its history. We asked our guide why no-one bothers to lock their cars, even leaving them parked outside the shops with the engine running to keep warm. The answer was quite simple really – you could drive a stolen car for about 5 miles then find nowhere to go! The town has a comprehensive road system which it is completely cut off except by ferry.

 
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Mural on the wall of Juneau Docks
Juneau the capital of Alaska (in the rain of course)

Today we have booked a helicopter trip to the Mendenhall Glacier with a dog-sled ride when we get there. The weather seems a little overcast! Oh dear, they tell us that the helicopter isn’t flying today as the cloud base is too low. As you have to book your trips ashore in advance we did think we would be spending our time in Juneau looking at the shops, and seeing how much more detail we could find in the mural. However the powers that be (on the ship) managed to arrange an extra boat to take those who wanted to go “Whale Watching” instead. Oh yes! We had been disappointed that we had had to choose between the “Whale Watch” trip and the helicopter and dog-sled trip, so we were not too upset.

Off we went full of excitement that we could see whales – although the company that run the trips do offer refunds if no whale is seen. Out into the bay to start looking for the tell-tale water spout and yes there’s a whale – it’s a Humpback who stays around for about 5 minutes then decides to leave us to look at an empty sea. However about 5 miles away we see the fin of a Killer Whale which is larger than the boat it is by! We also see some seals enjoying a sleep on a buoy, not very quiet though as every time they move the bell on the buoy sounds! But yes we saw a Whale.

Very happy back to the ship for another pleasant evening and a late sailing from Juneau.

 

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Humpback whale
Waving goodbye
Killer Whale fin - bigger than the boat
Not the most peaceful place for these seals to sleep!

Saturday 7th July

Today we arrive at Skagway with an 8.30 a.m. start on our rail trip to follow in the footsteps of the early gold rush explorers. The first explorers found the route on foot, having to haul all their possessions on dog sleds. The scenery on the “White Pass Railway” is magnificent. We went right up into the mountains, clinging to the side and crossing precarious bridges, climbing ever higher until we reached the border with Canada! Yes we had to take our passports with us (just in case!). Across the flat plain on top we saw Caribou, although as the cloud base was quite low we were unable to see the (supposed) magnificent views around us. When we arrived at the station we left the train and transferred to a coach for the return journey. After about 5 minutes we passed the Canadian border post but didn’t pass the American border post until about 5 miles later. Apparently both nations decided that the top of the mountain was too inhospitable for a customs post! The American post was only a cabin with a camera and a sign stating that if you had “anything to declare” you should show it to the camera.

On our way back to the ship we spent time at a reconstructed “Gold Rush” Camp, Liarsville. This was most enjoyable with the history of the early explorers told in song and dance, and we were able to “pan for gold”, keeping any nuggets we found! Naturally there was a very large, friendly husky padding around looking for food and attention. He was also an important part of the “cabaret”. It seems that the original news reporters were not keen on going further up the pass, so they made a comfortable camp at the base of the pass and sent back their stories as if they were on the Gold Rush trail, based on stories told to them by the returning prospectors; eventually they were found uot, and their camp was renamed Liarsville.

Back to the dock to take pictures and hear about the history of the “Graffiti” on the mountain face in front of the ship. This graffiti was done by the varying captain’s of the ships that visited Skagway, the most recent being added during the 1960’s. Another quiet evening aboard, although every night there is entertainment if you prefer all your time organised.

 

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On the White Pass Railway looking down at the original gold-rush trail at the foot of the valley
Are we really going to cross that wooden trestle bridge ?
Crossing the wooden trestle bridge
The American/Canadian Border.
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Liarsville (where the newspapermen lived)
Debbie hugs a husky
Debbie pans for gold
Ships Graffiti at Skagway

Sunday 8th July

Today we do not leave the ship, although we are not “at sea” either. We enter Yakutat Bay to sail as close to Hubbard Glacier as possible. This involves manoeuvring the ship through the ice. What fun and people still seem to want the song from “Titanic” sung all the time! The Captain anchors the boat near enough to the Glacier that when it calves the wash bounces the ship around. The noise is incredible when you can hear it above the chatter of the people around. Lunch today was a very enjoyable barbeque on the back deck with the Glacier as a backdrop – perfect.

During the afternoon, while we were sailing back to the open sea, a Yakutat Tlingit Native came on board to give a talk. Well we didn’t know who he was to start with. This man appeared wearing a pin-stripe suite, bowler hat and carrying an umbrella and whilst he talked about the Tlingit natives and their history he gradually changed from “city gent” (he was a lawyer) into full blown native costume. He was then joined by members of this family and tribe who demonstrated some of their traditional dances and rituals.

We decided to join in the organised entertainment this evening as it was a 50’s and 60’s Dance Party, and the entertainment staff being American really knew how to dress for the occasion.

Another wonderful day.

 

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SS Universe Explorer
Hubbard Glacier
Hubbard Glacier
Hubbard Glacier calving (huge pieces break off as the glacier moves steadily forward, and float away as icebergs)
Hubbard Glacier calving
Barbecue lunch in front of the Hubbard Glacier

Monday 9th July

Today we arrive at Valdez, the northern most ice-free port in the Western Hemisphere and the Southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The highway out of town has a set of traffic lights – not in itself unusual but in the whole of Alaska there are only 3 other sets of lights!

Good Friday in Valdez is not a good day. In 1964 the waterfront was destroyed by the strongest earthquake ever recorded in North America. The quake triggered underwater landslides and caused massive tsunamis which washed the dock and school away. However being the Easter Holiday the locals managed to rebuild the school in time for the pupils to start at the beginning of term. Apparently the children were not impressed. The quake also resulted in the town being rebuilt 4 miles west. In 1989 another disaster hit the area when the tanker “Exxon Valdez” ran aground on a reef and spilled 11.2 million barrels of crude oil in the beautiful bay outside the Port of Valdez.

Allan and Debbie parted company today. Debbie took a bus trip to the Thompson Pass and Worthington Glacier – very pretty but much the same as before. Allan went white-water rafting in Keystone Canyon. On the previous trip, two weeks before, the rafting couldn’t take place as the river was too high to enable the boats to get under the road bridge! Allan’s instructions were to take a dry pair of socks, which he duly did, but this was his only clothing that wasn’t soaked. Still it looked fun, we arrived back to collect the “rafters” on our way back from Thompson Pass.

We were dropped in the centre of Valdez which enabled us to have a look around the town, but didn’t give us a lot of time to visit the many interesting sights. The Cruise Ship Dock is 4 miles out of town so the shuttle bus was much appreciated to return to the dock.

 

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Bridal Veil Falls
The river past Bridal Veil Falls (I would soon be rafting past here)
Wet-water rafting (I'm the one nearest the camera, right at the front!)
The beautiful bay of Valdez

 

Now we were nearing the half-way point of our journey, and soon we would have to turn round. Still, there would be plenty of different places to explore on the way back ....

 

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