Saturday, July 23, 2016

Misty Fjords National Monument

We really wished we could’ve of done this excursion first, rather than on our last day in Alaska. To be honest, after seeing all of the incredibly stunning beauty over the last few days, we felt that Misty Fjords National Monument was somewhat anticlimactic. Although it was still a nice excursion, we likely would’ve have enjoyed it much more had we visited here at the front end of our trip.

Our excursion began from Ketchikan. Just getting to Ketchikan that morning was a bit of an adventure itself. Two weeks before our trip a Celebrity cruise ship crashed into one of the docks and put it out of commission for an indefinite amount of time. Instead of docking right next to town, our ship had to anchor in the bay, which meant we had to take a tender over to the shore. The tenders we used were the lifeboats for our ship. I can’t even imagine being cramped in one of those for days waiting for a rescue!

From Ketchikan harbor our catamaran sped south through Revillagigedo Channel before making a sharp turn towards the north and into the Behm Canal.

Established in 1978, Misty Fjords National Monument encompasses almost 2.3 million acres within the Tongass National Forest. The vast majority of the wilderness lies between Behm Canal and Portland Canal. In this part of Alaska, fjords, or glacially-carved valleys filled with sea water, are known as "canals". The near-vertical walls that form these canals rise to as much as 3000 feet above the sea, and drop at least 2000 feet below the surface of the water. At one point, while we were floating less than 100 yards off the shore, our interpreter noted that we were in 700 feet of water. At more than 100 miles in length, the Behm Canal is the longest waterway within the national monument. The canal is also home to the U.S. Navy’s Southeast Alaska Acoustic Measurement Facility, which strives to make submarines as quiet as possible.

Misty Fjords is just one part of a vast rain forest that stretches along the Pacific coast, from the Gulf of Alaska to Northern California. Western hemlock, Sitka spruce and western red cedar dominate the forests within the monument. Visitors may also see a wide variety of wildlife, including both brown and black bears, mountain goats, moose, wolves, wolverines, otters, sea lions, harbor seals, killer whales, and Dall porpoises. During our visit we saw a few pigeon guillemots, sea ducks, and at least two dozen bald eagles.

Although we didn’t see any rain during our visit, we did experience overcast skies throughout much of the day. That was fine by us. Ketchikan is the 4th wettest place on Earth! On average it receives roughly 160 inches of rain per year, with much of it arriving during the fall.

Just before reaching Rudyerd Bay and Punchbowl Cove, our ultimate destinations on this trip, we passed by New Eddystone Rock. Discovered by Captain George Vancouver in 1793, New Eddystone Rock is a 237-foot high pillar of basalt rock, which was originally formed by a volcanic vent that allowed magma to rise to the earth‘s surface. There were several harbor seals resting on the tiny island as we passed by.

Rudyerd Bay and Punchbowl Cove are recognized as being the one of the most scenic areas in Misty Fjords. During our visit we also saw dozens of nesting seabirds along the steep cliffs of the cove.

Just after leaving Rudyerd Bay we stopped to check out a Tlingit pictograph painted just above the water line on a very interesting and picturesque rock. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t discern the ancient artwork from the natural rock, but certainly enjoyed the beauty of the rock itself.

As we made our way back to Ketchikan our guides brought out some snacks and beverages. They provided us with fresh smoked salmon, soup, a variety of locally made jams and relishes, as well as pickled kelp. At first this didn’t sound all that appetizing, but after trying the seaweed, I was hooked. It has a very unique and somewhat tangy flavor. Of course they sold all of these products onboard, so we took home some fresh smoked salmon and a couple jars of kelp.

As mentioned above, just two weeks before our visit, the Celebrity Infinity, a 965-foot, 91,000-ton cruise ship, crashed into one of the docks in Ketchikan. The crash caused one of the gangways to break off and puncture the ship’s hull. Ketchikan’s Port and Harbors Director estimated that the crash caused $2-3 million in damages to the dock. It sounds like wind was the culprit in this accident, as gusts were clocked at around 45 MPH. The accident was caught on video:

Lonely Planet Alaska is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you in Alaska. This guide includes full-color maps and images, highlights and itineraries to help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests, as well as insider tips, cultural insights, reviews for all budgets, and essential info at your fingertips, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips and prices.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Denver Valley Hike

On Day 4 of our cruise, our ship made a scheduled stop at the Port of Skagway. For our excursion that day we chose to do the Denver Valley Hike, with the thought that this could be our only chance to ever go “hiking in Alaska”. Additionally, this excursion included a ride on the famous White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad.

The excursion began with a van ride along the Klondike Highway up to White Pass (elevation 2865 feet), which also marks the border between the U.S. and Canada. From there it proceeds down to Fraser, British Columbia where we would board the train. While creeping along towards White Pass we spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear meandering just off the side of the road. After arriving in the tiny town of Fraser, located at Mile 27.7 on the track, we passed through customs and finally boarded the train. From the railroad depot we could see several rugged mountains towering towards the north, some of which were located in the Yukon Territory roughly 20 miles away.

From Fraser the train headed south towards the Denver Valley Trailhead, located at Mile 5.8 on the track, where it would drop-off our hiking group before continuing down to Skagway. Along the way the historic railroad route traced portions of the “White Pass Trail of 98”. In some spots you can still see remnants of the original path used by thousands of gold rush stampeders during the late 1800s, which would become “the largest gold rush the world has ever known”. 

The 67-mile White Pass & Yukon Route was built in only 26 months. It’s now designated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, as it was considered to be an impossible task to build. Tens of thousands of men used picks and shovels, as well as 450 tons of explosives, to blast through the towering mountains.

Our hike began from the old White Pass caboose at the trailhead. This refurbished 1960s era caboose is now rented out by the Tongass National Forest for overnight stays. Hikers, skiers and snowshoers can use this unique accommodation as their basecamp while exploring the Denver Valley area.

The Denver Glacier Trail more or less follows the East Fork of the Skagway River. It begins by traveling through a second growth forest, but eventually enters an old growth temperate rain forest. The deeper you proceed up the valley, the lusher and more enchanted the forest becomes.

For the most part the route travels along a moderate grade. As you climb higher the 7000-foot Sawtooth Mountains will become visible on your left. During our mid-June hike we saw several varieties of wildflowers along the trail, including dwarfed dogwood and foam flower. Both the trees and the forest floor were covered in ferns, lichens, moss and fungi. Devil’s club is likely the most dominant species growing along the forest floor, while western hemlock and Sitka spruce dominate the canopy, some of which are estimated to be 1000 years old.

This glacially-carved valley, deeper than the Grand Canyon, is also home to bears, moose and mountain goats – though we didn’t see any.

For lunch we stopped along the banks of the river where we enjoyed good views of the Sawtooths towards the north. Given how slow our group was moving, I asked one of the guides how much further we were going to go. She indicated not much further due to time constraints. I then asked if we could split into two groups, with one going faster than the other in order to cover as much ground as possible. She was in complete agreement with this plan. In fact, I wished I had approached her with this recommendation much earlier, as we could’ve covered even more terrain. With a total of four guides on our trip, this accommodation was not an issue in anyway.

While our group consisted of only 15 hikers, the guides can handle up to 25 per trip. After lunch, our group of "fast" hikers proceeded at a much brisker pace in order to reach Denver Falls, our final destination of the day. We estimate that we hiked roughly 2.2 miles to reach the falls, and probably climbed about 600 feet along the way.

Speaking of lunch, here’s another insider tip. The lunch provided by our tour guides was quite pedestrian – in other words, just plain. Although Holland America states that you shouldn’t take food off the boat, we saw no evidence that they ever check, or care, on any of the excursions we did. For this particular excursion I would definitely bring a much tastier sandwich from the boat if I were ever to do this tour again.

After arriving back at the trailhead we noticed a mother grouse and her newborn chicks hiding underneath the caboose. After waiting several minutes the last train of the day finally came by and took us back to Skagway. Once in town we promptly beelined over to the historic Red Onion Saloon and ordered a couple of Moose Drools.

All in all it was a nice hike. But to be honest, most of the major national parks in the lower 48 have far more scenic trails than this one. We were really disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to hike all the way to Denver Glacier. This likely would’ve made this a great hike.

I should mention here that mosquitoes weren’t really an issue for us during our hike. Although we did see a few, and declined the use of Deet which was offered to us by our guides, we had no problems with Alaska’s “state bird”.

I should also point out that we attended a Klondike Gold Rush program on the last full day of our cruise. The program was absolutely great. However, I really wish that Holland America would’ve offered this program before our visit to Skagway. Moreover, I wish that they would've posted a video of the presentation on their website, which may have possibly influenced my decision on which excursion to take while in Skagway. If the Klondike Gold Rush is of any interest to you at all, I would highly recommend doing a little research up front in order to learn more about this historical event so as to make the most of your time in Skagway.

Lonely Planet Alaska is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you in Alaska. This guide includes full-color maps and images, highlights and itineraries to help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests, as well as insider tips, cultural insights, reviews for all budgets, and essential info at your fingertips, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips and prices.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve

“Climbing higher for a still broader outlook, I made notes and sketched, improving the precious time while sunshine streamed through the luminous fringes of the clouds and fell on the green waters of the fiord, the glittering bergs, the crystal bluffs of the vast glacier, the intensely white, far-spreading fields of ice, and the ineffably chaste and spiritual heights of the Fairweather Range, which were now hidden, now partly revealed, the whole making a picture of icy wildness unspeakably pure and sublime.”
    - John Muir on seeing Glacier Bay for first time in 1879

Without a doubt, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was the highlight of our entire cruise. After the photos and videos I saw prior to our trip, it was also the most anticipated. No doubt we were very blessed to have outstanding weather that day. Many of the ship crew members also commented how extremely lucky we were to have had such a glorious day, as this area is usually cloudy, and receives quite a bit of rain.

Our ship entered Glacier Bay around 6:00 AM on the 5th day of our trip. We stayed within the park boundaries for more than nine-and-a-half hours. Sometime during the wee hours of the morning a couple of park rangers boarded our ship. Throughout the day they gave presentations and answered a variety of questions from the passengers. They also helped with spotting wildlife as we made the roughly 65-mile journey to visit Johns Hopkins Glacier and Margerie Glacier.

Surprisingly we saw very little in the way of wildlife. We did see a bald eagle, porpoise, sea lion, harbor seal and a couple of humpback whales. I was hoping to see more, but that was fine, we were there for the scenery. Some of the other wildlife that thrive in and around the bay include minke and killer whales, sea otters, moose, black and brown bears, wolves, mountain goats, wolverines, lynx, as well as a wide variety of birds and waterfowl.
“The very thought of this Alaska garden is a joyful exhilaration. …out of all the cold darkness and glacial crushing and grinding comes this warm, abounding beauty and life to teach us that what we in our faithless ignorance and fear call destruction is creation finer and finer.”
    - John Muir on Glacier Bay

John Muir made his first visit to Glacier Bay in 1879, only one year prior to the establishment of his beloved Yosemite National Park. Muir came to Alaska to learn about glaciers and how they shape the landscape. He believed that the Yosemite Valley had been carved by ice, and wanted to prove his theory by studying the glaciers in Alaska. At the time of his first visit the main glacier in Glacier Bay had already receded 45 miles up the bay, thus opening the bay to navigation, exploration and research for the first time.

In his 1915 book, Travels in Alaska, which was a collection of newspaper dispatches, lectures and articles, Muir began promoting Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage to the broader public. This led to President Calvin Coolidge proclaiming Glacier Bay a national monument in 1925. In 1980 Glacier Bay was elevated to a National Park and Preserve. In 1986 it was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve, and then was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

Today, the world's largest protected marine sanctuary also protects 16 tidewater glaciers and 30 valley glaciers within an area that encompasses 3.3 million acres. In all, there are more than 1000 glaciers in the park. The mountains surrounding Glacier Bay are some of the highest coastal mountains in the world, with the tallest peak in the park, Mount Fairweather, rising 15,300 feet above sea level. The stunning beauty of this park attracts roughly 450,000 visitors a year, with roughly 90% arriving by cruise ship.

After a couple of hours of sailing we approached the end of the bay, passing Reid Glacier and Russell Island, just before reaching Johns Hopkins Inlet. Near the entrance to the inlet was the snout of Lamplugh Glacier, which stretches 16 miles south towards the Brady Icefield:

Topeka Glacier also comes into view near the entrance to the inlet:

Once we rounded Jaw Point, a nearly 90-degree bend in Johns Hopkins Inlet, we could finally see Johns Hopkins Glacier at the head of the inlet. Our view was rather distant since the ship could only go so far into this fjord. From its source along the eastern slopes of Lituya Mountain and Mount Salisbury, the glacier extends for 12.5 miles before spilling into the bay. At its terminus the glacier rises 250 feet above the water, with another 200 feet submerged below:

After making a 180-degree turn the ship began making its way towards Tarr Inlet. As we cruised towards the far end of this fjord we headed straight for Grand Pacific Glacier, which stretched just below the mountains across the border in Canada. Although 2 miles wide and 35 miles in length, Grand Pacific Glacier stands only 60 feet high:

Our ship sailed all the way to the end of the inlet, just shy of where Margerie Glacier meets the sea. As we approached we were very fortunate to see some fairly significant calving. We also heard quite a bit of cracking and rumbling inside the ice as the ship got to within a quarter-mile of this massive glacier. At the point where it reaches the ocean, Marjorie Glacier is about a mile wide. From its source along the southern slopes of 12,860-foot Mount Root, the glacier extends for 21 miles before reaching the bay. It rises 250 feet above the water, with another 100 feet submerged below the surface:

Margerie Glacier was once considered to be one of the most active glaciers in the national park, but has stabilized in recent years, and is neither advancing nor retreating. Johns Hopkins Glacier, on the other hand, is advancing at a rate of 10-15 inches per day.

Glacier Bay is thought to contain some of the fastest moving glaciers in the world. According to the national park website the main glacier reached its maximum extent at the end of the Little Ice Age around 1750. At that time the glacier extended all the way into Icy Straight. However, when Captain George Vancouver sailed into the area in 1794, he and his crew described what we now call Glacier Bay as just a small five-mile indent in a gigantic glacier that stretched off to the horizon. By 1879 John Muir noted that the ice had retreated an additional 40 miles, and was in the process creating the bay. By 1916 the main glacier had melted back 60 miles to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet. Since then, over the last one hundred years, the glacier has retreated only an additional 5 miles. The park website also notes that some of the glaciers are retreating while others are advancing.

Indeed, Glacier Bay continues to be shaped by nature. Less than two weeks after our visit a massive landslide spread debris for miles across the Lamplugh Glacier. According to reports the rock face of a 4000-foot mountain, located between the Brady Icefield and Johns Hopkins Inlet, collapsed on a high, steep slope. Once the debris hit the glacier it kept sliding for roughly 6.5 miles. Scientists estimate that the landslide carried about 132 million tons of rock and debris – the equivalent of about 60 million mid-size SUVs - down the mountain and glacier. The Alaska Earthquake Center said the slide was the equivalent to a magnitude 5.5 earthquake. Although no one was around to see it, Paul Swanstrom, a pilot with the Mountain Flying Service, recorded the avalanche on video just two hours after the dust was just settling:

Lonely Planet Alaska is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you in Alaska. This guide includes full-color maps and images, highlights and itineraries to help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests, as well as insider tips, cultural insights, reviews for all budgets, and essential info at your fingertips, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips and prices.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Endicott Arm Fjord

“Shut in by sublime Yosemite cliffs, nobly sculptured, and adorned with waterfalls and fringes of trees, bushes, and patches of flowers, but amid so crowded a display of novel beauty it was not easy to concentrate the attention long enough on any portion of it without giving more days and years than our lives can afford.”
    - John Muir’s description of the Tracy and Endicott Arm Fjords during his visit in 1879

I must admit I was quite disappointed. After boarding the high-speed catamaran we learned that Tracy Arm was impassable due to too much floating ice. Instead, we were going to visit Dawes Glacier in nearby Endicott Arm. However, once we arrived at the glacier at the end of the fjord there was no longer any disappointment on my part. It was absolutely spectacular!

As the ms Nieuw Amsterdam cruised up Stephens Passage, heading towards Juneau, it stopped in mid-ocean to allow our excursion group to board the catamaran. This transfer occurred just outside of Holkham Bay, which marks the split between the Tracy and Endicott Arm Fjords. Instead of taking a left into Tracy Arm, we turned right into Endicott Arm. As we sailed through the bay we could see quite a bit of ice floating out of Tracy Arm.

The Endicott Arm Fjord marks the southern boundary of the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness area within the Tongass National Forest. It’s located about 45 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. Designated by Congress in 1980, the Wilderness contains 653,179 acres, and includes two deep and narrow, glacially-carved fjords. Both fjords are more than 30 miles in length. At the head of each is an active tidewater glacier, which frequently calve large icebergs during the summer months, some as large as three-story buildings. Some say that the Tracy Arm–Fords Terror Wilderness encompasses terrain and scenery that rivals Glacier Bay National Park. I would say it's close...

Weather-wise, our luck continued this day. The forecast for Juneau on this day called for a 100% chance of rain. Although we did see a few of sprinkles of rain and sleet, which lasted less than 10 minutes, the weather otherwise was absolutely spectacular. I even got a sun burn, which was the last thing I expected to get in Alaska - especially when you consider that this part of the state gets some precipitation on roughly 222 days per year!

During our 31-mile journey to the end of the fjord we saw quite a bit of wildlife, including a brown bear, a bald eagle, sea ducks and several humpback whales. Visitors to the area may also see black bears, wolves, mountain goats, deer, moose, Arctic terns, pigeon guillemots and orcas. Endicott Arm is also one of the largest breeding grounds for harbor seals in the world.

Visitors will also see several waterfalls crashing down the steep cliffs of the fjords:

As already mentioned, at the end of Endicott Arm is Dawes Glacier, a wall of ice roughly 600 feet in height, and a half-mile in width.

Though my photos don’t do it justice, the deep azure blue of the ice was simply amazing to see in person.

If you ever get a chance to visit this part of Alaska, I would highly recommend taking this tour in a heart beat.

Lonely Planet Alaska is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you in Alaska. This guide includes full-color maps and images, highlights and itineraries to help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests, as well as insider tips, cultural insights, reviews for all budgets, and essential info at your fingertips, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips and prices.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

North to Alaska

A few weeks ago Kathy and I took a cruise to Alaska. Not only was it our first trip to the 49th state, but it was also our first cruise. To be honest, we’re not “cruise people”, but felt it was the best way to see the Inside Passage and southeastern Alaska. Our primary goals were seeing Glacier Bay National Park and Tracy Arm, as well as hiking through the Denver Valley along the White Pass & Yukon Rail Route. In short, we were there to see the scenery - not for the amenities of a cruise.

After doing quite a bit of research in trying to decide which cruise line to take, and what time of year to take our trip, we chose to go with Holland America in early June. We liked Holland America because it visited both Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm, and if I remember correctly, was the only cruise line to do so. Some of the other lines visit Icy Straight, Mendenhall Glacier or Sitka as part of their itinerary. We chose to sail in early June because it tends to have some of the best weather in terms of the least amount of rain. Although the forecast looked rather bleak for almost every day of our trip, we saw very little rain during our one-week cruise. Early June is also a good time if you're looking to avoid mosquitoes, which can be bothersome according to some of the reports I read. Our timing worked out perfectly. The only time mosquitoes gave us any problems was while we were standing on the dock in Skagway, other than that, they were a complete non-issue.

As a result of our choice we ended up sailing out of Vancouver, British Columbia on the ms Nieuw Amsterdam, a relatively new ship which took its maiden voyage on July 4, 2010. The ship is 935 feet in length, has 11 passenger decks that can accommodate up to 2,106 passengers, has a crew of 929, and has a maximum speed of 23.9 knots (27.5 mph).

The start of our cruise experience did not go smoothly. We both felt lost after walking into the terminal building at the Vancouver dock. It was chaotic, unorganized, and there was very little signage to explain where to go or what to do. Once we had all of our documents in order, and the process of boarding the ship began, we felt like cattle being herded to the slaughterhouse. The whole process reminded me of the Soup Nazi episode on Seinfeld.

A couple of hours after boarding, all passengers had to take part in a mandatory evacuation drill before we could set sail. Once this was completed, things became more normal and we began settling into our ship-life groove. I didn’t even realize we were moving until I walked to the back deck and saw the wake trailing behind the boat. As we cruised between the mainland and Vancouver Island (which is 290 miles in length) that first day, sailing was really smooth. However, on the second day, we sailed through open seas for several hours before reaching the Inside Passage. To make matters worse, a rain system with fairly high winds passed over us during this portion of the trip. According to the cruise log the wind was clocked at 33 knots, or 38 MPH, resulting in some relatively rough seas. Though nothing horrible, both Kathy and I did feet a little woozy, especially when we went into the confines of our tiny bathroom. To help remedy the situation we tried to spend as much time as possible outside where the fresh air - though damp and cold - seemed to do the trick.

For the most part, the first two days were fairly uneventful. Other than a few whale and porpoise sightings, and some far off mountains, we really didn’t see much.

That all changed once we reached the meat of our trip. Over the next three days we enjoyed outstanding weather and scenery.

One of the legendary tales about cruising is the quantity of great food passengers have access to from morning through night. For the most part I thought the food on our boat was pretty good, with a few items I would describe as being exceptional. I thought Holland America did a very good job with their beef dishes. Their cream of broccoli, French onion and wild mushroom soups were all outstanding as well. I also enjoyed the chance to sample foods I don’t normally have access to, such as the offerings from Indonesia, the homeland of many of the crew members.

The downside to the dining experience was dealing with the constant crowds, especially during breakfast and lunch at the Lido Restaurant, where the food is served buffet style. It was hard to have a relaxing experience, not to mention the difficulty in finding an open table to sit at. For dinner we chose to dine in the main dining room, which is a sit-down, full service experience.

I should also mention that the entire staff – room service, waiters and business personnel – were all extremely friendly and professional.

On-board entertainment was pretty good as well. On nights when it was too cold or wet to sit outside, we watched B.B. King's All-Stars at the B.B. King's Blues Club. I was really looking forward to hearing some good blues, but discovered the band played mostly Motown. Oh well. The band was still very talented; especially the female vocalist who I thought could be a national talent. We also went to the piano bar one night, which I thought was a lot of fun. Since the pianist mentioned that he liked Elton John, I jokingly requested Funeral for a Friend, which I was sure he would scoff at. Not only did he know the song, and not only did he play it, but he did one whale of a job on it – I was thoroughly impressed!

All in all we had a great experience, and are certainly glad we took the cruise, but have no intention of ever doing another one. As I said, were not really “cruise people”.

Over the next several days I will be posting photos and reports from our excursions into Tracy Arm, Glacier Bay National Park, Misty Fjords National Monument, as well as our hike through Denver Valley just north of Skagway. Below are a few more random photos from our cruise.

Float plane takes off from the Juneau airport at sunset:

Typical scene from Vancouver Island:

On Day 5 after visiting Glacier Bay, instead of sailing through Icy Straight, we instead hung a right and sailed past the Brady Icefield and Brady Glacier, with the Fairweather Mountains in the background:

Good advice…

Ketchikan harbor:

Sunset along Vancouver Island:

For a detailed tour of the boat you can watch this short video:


Lonely Planet Alaska is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you in Alaska. This guide includes full-color maps and images, highlights and itineraries to help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests, as well as insider tips, cultural insights, reviews for all budgets, and essential info at your fingertips, such as hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips and prices.