A Travellerspoint blog

Shopping Ain't Always Easy:

Diamonds May Not be Forever

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AD6F522E0171FB87CF998F8AF97D40CA.jpgSo having been stunned by those amazing cathedrals of ice and snow that are Alaska’s glaciers in the earlier part of our Alaskan cruise, for the next 3 days on the boat (sorry Martin I keep forgetting it’s a ship) we visited a new port a day.

Skagway is a town that reminded me of Sovereign Hill, the pretend goldfield town in Ballarat. Lots of Alaska’s European settlement history revolves around the Gold Rush to Klondike, where they got out heaps of gold for small numbers of people. But the traumas of passage, and then access to the goldfields were like logistical nightmares on speed for those unprepared fortune seekers. Skagway sets itself up as the town that looks like an old late 19th century town complete with (temporary) wooden boardwalk in front of the shops down the main street. The rest of the town looks perfectly normal, if a little rough around the edges, thus befitting a small town on the Alaskan coast.

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(Note the sign in the window about the brothel tours! It gave P a chuckle! Apparently, it was a brothel in goldrush days, but we hasten to add - not any more!!)

Fortunately, Phil and I had booked a photography tour and only meandered for about 90 mins in Skagway. Our tour was 3 hours with a German magazine photographer who took us up to see glaciers waterfalls and stunning scenery and teach us how to best use our cameras, compose our shots, and improve our skills. Me? I was far behind the 8-ball but even my photography has improved since then. There were only 5 of us, so we got to see such beautiful places in peace. The sound of snow melt running down the mountain was like taking a peace pill that just filled the soul. And the Inuksuk symbol was a really powerful piece of First Nation symbolism that I personally was fascinated by. It pointed a follower in the right direction, by looking through the hole (between the legs) to the next symbol and that was the path to follow!

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To make up for the ho-hum of Skagway's main street, that night at 1030 we decided to attend an organised event on the ship. As P went to collect our jackets for rugging up for Exploring The Stars on the Top Deck outside, he met a woman running down the corridor squealing that the Lights were out! All talk of exploring stars by the entertainment crew was quickly abandoned as Mother Nature turned on one of her glorious Northern Lights spectacles. Even now as I type and recall the sky that night I have goosebumps! It was ALL we'd heard it could be. Amazing colours, swirling action, and just a few of the 1000 passngers and crew there to watch it. The Bridge turned out the lights on the top deck to help us and we just stood in wonder, maybe 60 or 70 of us! It lasted less than 30 mins or so but eclipsed what we had seen the previous time by a 100 times!! Truly magical! And this old Oma did a little dance of excitement on the deck at her good fortune at seeing this wonder!! Photos just do NOT capture it. It's weird! Like it has to be seen in reality to really get it's wonder! So two happy little campers took to our very comfy cabin and watched for longer from our deck but nothing more was to be seen!

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The other two ports, Juneau (Alaska’s capital) and Ketchikan were sadly underwhelming repeats of Skagway (only without the wild west boardwalk). All three had a small shopping area OVER-RUN by diamond and semi-precious stone sellers that are gone in a few weeks once the summer cruise season is over and winter sets in. They were beside the occasional First Nation gallery, with some Alaskan handiwork, and then the inevitable cheap souvenirs’ shops that all had variations of the same things mainly made in China!

Don’t ask me why people would buy diamonds from Alaska but seemingly they do. I think it avoids a sales tax but even so, you wouldn’t feel confident that Mr Dodgy Bros had even sold you a real one!! Some looked reputable and others claimed their integrity with cheap tacky signs with the predictable spelling errors. But when the sales staff are leaning in the doorway trying to lure you inside, you want to run a mile! It reminded me of the worst of Lygon St on a Saturday night!

In Juneau, I went to the sled dogs summer camp and learned some more about Alaskan huskies which tend to be bitzers bred by mushers for particular qualities. I nursed some 9 week puppies, met some others, and got dragged around a track in a wheeled enlarged golf buggy pulled by a team.

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Then I was silly enough to wander around town only to make the discoveries about the repetition of shops. See dear reader, I went and did all that for you! I call it Research, whatever you might call it!! So I could report back. General consensus across the people we talked to, was that the ports were disappointing, and no-one ever wanted to see a diamond seller again! But then the shop onboard was doing their best to persuade jewellery purchases too.

Meanwhile Phil went to Mendenhall Glacier from Juneau for more glacier action and a salmon hatchery watching the salmon swim up some steps. They need to have done the whole swim upstream and fight their way upwards to allow some unexplained biochemical process happen and allow them to hatch. he's captured a great shot of the glacier wall which i have put here! And also the waterfall that went with it.

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By the third day I’d had it and just meandered instead of touring anywhere, while Phil went off on an underwhelming tour that didn’t deliver anything thrilling except a bit of a drenching. So he returned a little peeved, and we sat on our deck and drank wine instead. That improved our humours and we were ready for a final day of sailing. That doesn’t sound like us at all does it?

Of course not all sailing is exotic and luxurious. If you're like us you get your washing done and hang lines all over your cabin so you can hang you jocks and knickers and shirts and pants all over the place. However there were some lovely moments on our own little deck where we shared wine and watched for whales - WHICH NEVER BLOODY APPEARED! I'm convinced it's all BS, all this wildlife in Alaska business! We saw bugger all but I guess that's the luck of the draw. But in the scheme of things those Northern Lights will do it for me more than bears or whales, so I'm happy!!

My next post will be about a princess. Tell you more then!

Love C!

Posted by OwenGadflies 19:33 Archived in USA Tagged alaska juneau skagway ketchikan pacific_princess mendenhall_glacier sled_dogs white_mountain_pass Comments (0)

Glaciers All About

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First item on the agenda once on the ship was to have a Muster Drill and learn the safety stuff and how to put on a life jacket. Unlike on planes, we had to actually PRACTISE it! And all before we left the shore. Ohh, I look sooo fetching in a life jacket. In fact, so fetching that we “forgot” to take a photo!

First night on board, I slept out of sheer exhaustion! Apparently the Gulf of Alaska (where we headed) can be a bit blowy and bumpy. I’d never have known! Sleeping-in helped and eating breakfast in our room helped a lot! By lunch time when we reached Yakatut Bay (home of the Hubbard Glacier) I was ready to stand on our balcony and revel in the glories of Glaciers.

With a Professor of Natural History up on the Bridge giving commentary (which could be heard on our in-room TV) we realised just how much we had learned from our little mate Steve the Naturalist/Bus Driver. Much of what the commentator said made sense, and was even familiar from our Steve-induced Fact-Absorption! And the beauty of the Glacier was just marvellous. We were bathed in glorious sun which made the glacier just more enticing, sparkly and just plain beautiful..

We spent most of the day on our balcony in AWE! With the occasional visit upstairs to the top decks to catch something on the other side (starboard or something or other!) which we were missing. (More story below these photos because I'm being slack and putting them all together!)

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Formal Dinner followed that day’s entertainment. Not sure Formal Dinner could be classed as entertainment though!

Just to give you some background, the information we had received said there were 2 formal dinners on our cruise and you could hire a dinner suit on the boat! But definitely, jeans were unacceptable and a jacket and tie or business suit would be accepted at a pinch!

Well, needless to say there was no way Phil wanted to do a tuxedo or even travel with a suit (lugging it around uselessly for the other 5 weeks of our trip)! After a clever suggestion from a Been-There-Done-That friend, (thanks Greg) we bought Phil a sports jacket at an Opp shop before we left, and made sure we had a shirt and tie and slacks for these events. The jacket will be redonated in Canada or USA after our cruise!

So back to Dinner. We spruced ourselves up and went to the preceding Captain’s Cocktail Party (free booze). Had our photo taken and then went into dinner. A rectangular table for 8 was our allocated table. It had a great view out the front of the boat (sorry Martin, I mean bow of the ship)! Two couples were already sitting there nattering away. We sat down and no-one took any notice, stopped their conversation, or even shut up for the next 20-30 mins! Nor did anyone else come along to take the last 2 seats.

By this time, mightily cheesed, we were happily chatting with each other and choosing to ignore them. (Secretly though, I was wondering if I could arrange with the Maitre d’ to move us to another table from the next night, seeing we were allocated to share dinner with this lot for the rest of the trip!!)

Eventually the couple nearest to us (they’d chosen to sit across from each other) introduced themselves. We responded but not super warmly and they at various times tried to be polite people in the middle. But it was very obvious that the husband in the last couple was somehow getting peeved if attention was not on him! Yes he was a grown up, and contrary to expectations, was the first Canadian we met who wasn’t friendly!

Americans seem to find Australians fascinating, and are genuinely interested in finding out more or telling you about their travels to Australia! Except of course when they think you’re a Brit, which we busily tell them is an unforgivable offence! (Sorry Pauline, but what would Aussie life be without a bit of Pommy-bashing? Especially when you are a hidden Pom heh Phil?)

The next day had us up early with the enticement of seeing whales. But our wildlife Jinx held up, and all we were rewarded with was lovely views as we headed towards Glacier Bay. Again sunshine and blue skies had the sunnies being dragged out. So so so different from freezing cold and snow in Denali. It was lovely sitting on our balcony and lapping up sun and views! Layers and sunglasses were needed but after Melbourne’s winter just-passed, we were happy to take it! Temps were about 16C.

We got to see more glaciers and some extras that can’t be neared before Sept 1. Until then, the seals have calved and are rearing pups, so must be left alone until the pups are reared sufficiently and left to get on with living by themselves by their slightly ruthless parents. (we are talking about 6 weeks here!)

The face of Hubberd’s Glacier is not as high as the ones in Glacier Bay but had been 3 miles wide right at the edge of the water. Margerie Glacier It's 21 mind-blowing miles long) and the Johns Hopkins Glacier were awesome in their heights and right at the water’s edge. The ship edged really close (the advantage of a small boat) and just stopped there so we could all see for about 45 mins!

The thunder-cracks that attended the calving off of sections of ice were resounding through the silence. People on the ship held their breath in the hope of seeing this exciting piece of natural theatre. So so peaceful, and so exciting at the same time. Like cathedrals of ice that deserved your respect and admiration.

Just fabulous, and I will always be grateful for seeing them in all their shiny sunlit beauty.

Eventually it was time for dinner. We’d decided we wouldn’t be late as we had been the night before. Maybe we’d even be first, and see just what effect that would have on the dynamics, and level of politeness. The couple who’d made the effort the night before came next and we were immediately engaged in great conversation. You know the story, ask people about themselves and just sit back and let em talk. Throw in the odd question, and all goes smoothly. Mr Canada’s look of horror at being left at the end of the table and intermittently out of the loop was karma really!

From then on dinners have gone quite well, and we have become fans of talking to our New Jersey fellow diners, and conversation flows easily and across so many subjects.

Ahh karma indeed is a pleasure.

Talk soon

Love Chris

Posted by OwenGadflies 20:21 Archived in USA Tagged alaska margerie_glacier hubbard_glacier pacific_princess Comments (2)

Awesome Beauty in Spades:

Why People Rave About Alaska

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One of the things that has been really impressive about our time in Alaska has been the care and concern that Alaskans have for protecting their pure and unadulterated parks, wildlife and resources. It is so obvious how much respect, both the residents and the Athabascan Indians, have for their precious untouched land. It’s clearly been a hard-fought battle but the foresight shown by people as far back as the 1920s in protecting their beautiful asset is a credit to many people. So much is done on a daily, and practically automatic basis, to care for this pristine wilderness, and is a lesson for so many of us. If I say any more I might get political, but suffice to say, there is a lot to be learned from their efforts!

And wonder of wonders, no-one I’ve come across in Alaska is a “climate sceptic”! They’re all far too convinced by the data in front of their eyes to even discuss it! Funny about that!!

But let’s move on.

From Denali Princess Lodge and the National Park, we moved on to Mt McKinley Princess Lodge (also just outside the National Park) arriving on Sunday 30th August.

This was an auspicious day because, as of Aug 30, Mt McKinley will now be called Denali which is what the Athabascan Indians have always called it and means “the High One”. That is entirely appropriate as Denali (Mt McKinley up unto Aug 29 2015) is the highest mountain in North America and the 3rd highest in the world. Apparently Pres McKinley only got a look-in because some bloke was schmoozing him. McKinley never set foot in Alaska, nor did he do anything for Alaska. It could have been changed federally years ago, but the Ohio senator (Ohio being McKinley’s home state) kept blocking the legislation. Clearly he wasn’t voted in to act for his country!! But now it’s done.

We started our Mt Denali (or The Mountain) experience with a bus ride in clear sunny weather! An amazing change from the 2” deep snow and freezing conditions we left at Denali Lodge. It is said only about 30% of people get to see the Mountain in all its glory and we got lucky that day, and the next, with clear and gob-smacking sightings of this sleeping giant under sparkling sun!

OMG I never thought I would get excited about mountains like I have here!

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And then when we checked in, we’d somehow lucked into a two-room suite for our room for the night. Comfy, spacious and with lovely views of surrounding mountains we took to it like ducks to water.

And speaking of water, we had booked an excursion to do a walk around Lake Byers with another naturalist. The newly-fitter Chrissy was a bit worried that this might be above and beyond her capacity, but I even surprised myself!

Again we were met by a young woman with a passion for ecology, biology, and natural history. The lake was serene and still and the walk was a soothing and fascinating journey into a woodland dense with beauty and learning! Our friend Steve (the awe-inspiring naturalist from Denali national park) had taught us well. This girl built on that, and so the walk was like peeking under the covers of an ecosystem we had seen from above as we bus-toured with Steve. It was also mild, sunny, and delightful.

Our wildlife count went up a bit further with the discovery of some spruce grouse and plenty of fresh fox droppings to suggest he was just ahead of us. Sadly though, our friend the fox remained unseen. And no bears either!!C9578B5AC4B77BBFABC6808CCE2B752B.jpgC958EA27D8595DC1AE1E6331EDE25C29.jpgC95CA0F0F3D78299E8650DFF5EF3EDDC.jpg

The next day saw us moving on again as we finally made tracks for the sea at Whittier (60 miles south of Anchorage) where our cruise ship would await us. To do that we were coached (sigh!) to the Railway Deepoh. That was, in fact, an area of gravelled ground beside the railway line where we were lined up (herded) according to our carriage number. There was no Deepoh building in sight! Very upmarket! I told you, it’s like the Wild West out here!

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Then we discovered that we had been allocated to a table where 2 couples would face each other for the FIVE-HOUR journey to the ship’s dock! As we approached the steps onto the train, my brain ran wild with thoughts of what a nightmare was presenting itself. 5 bloody hours forced into the company of 2 strangers. Yes I’m a bitch, but my gut was churning at the thought!

As we approached our table a staff member asked if we were the Owens. OMG! What now? How much worse could this all get? Turned out a couple wanted to swap places with us, so they could sit with their friends.

Then along came the other couple seated at our new table. Praise the Lord! It was a pair of ex-pat Americans who have chosen to live in NZ for the last 15 years and whom we’d already met and found delightful. Americans with a world-view, rather than the sometimes narrow and skewed view that we’d bumped into already during our travels. The five hours flew by with lots of laughter and common ground at the table. Should have trusted, shouldn’t I?

More to come soon. Maybe tomorrow even seeing I have over-walked my knee into inflammation. Think I will probably stay on board for tomorrow’s port visit. It’s supposed to rain so I’m not that distressed!

Love Chris

Posted by OwenGadflies 18:31 Archived in USA Tagged alaska denali talkeetna lake_byers Comments (2)

Believe It or Not:

It Turns Out Chris Can Cope with Some Discomforts!


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The next morning after our Northern Lights Adventures we had a ride down the Chena river on a Paddleboat.

Yes it was just as cheesy and plastic an excursion as that sounds, and probably more so. Complete with a local community radio announcer as MC; a bush pilot conveniently needing to land and take off on the water right beside us while talking to the MC on the radio; and the musher with his dogs (and handy little portable mic) placed to whip around an oval track so that he looked like Santa flying along the ground (though those Alaskan Huskies were wonderful). Every single stop and person had a script they kept to word-for-word, and we got herded everywhere. It was relatively interesting information, but was also the stuff of our worst nightmares about being on a tour.

Having been shuffled through the lunch area and then the gift shop (of course) we rejoined our bus and headed off to Denali, a massive National Park in the centre of Alaska. Here we had scheduled 2 nights at the Princess Lodge as part of our tour.

A couple of hours after we arrived we were scheduled to go on a Covered Wagon excursion into the National Park. Remember I mentioned how cold and wet it was in Fairbanks? Well up in the mountains of Denali it was even colder and wetter! Swearing I would just cancel because it was too cold to be going anywhere in a covered wagon, I checked the paperwork to discover it was too late to cancel without losing the $200 we’d paid for the excursion. Yes indeed!! I was wondering what possessed us to book that too!

So rugging up with multiple layers and gratefully wrapping ourselves in the provided blankets, we climbed up into the wagon behind two enormous draught horses and bumped our way along the track. It was our first look at the expanses of now-autumn-toned bushes on the ground. With only about 15 or 16 in our wagon, chatting was easy and despite our concerns, it wasn’t too cold and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. A warming country dinner awaited us at our stop and we bumped our way back to the warmth of our hotel. I can assure you BUMPED is the operative word!

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After a restorative sleep-in, we headed off on a 5 hour History tour encroaching just 17 miles into the 6 MILLION acres that is this mountainous park. Here the striking “fall” colours of the ground covering bushes are broad sweeps of intense colour with intermittent and somewhat straggly 10 metre high pines and birches and shorter alders.

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On this tour, there was no complaint from us about the fact that we were herded everywhere, because our driver Steve was a BRILLIANT and highly-educated naturalist, deeply and broadly informed. We soaked up information from someone who loved that land and understood how to convey it in ways that fascinated and engaged everyone. It was blissful!

Up to this point I had begun to believe that Alaskan wildlife was a load of marketing hype! We had seen 2 squirrels and 2 ducks in the 4 or 5 days since our arrival in the 49th state.

But no, I had to eat my words. There, not 10 metres off the road, was the most HUMUNGOUS bull moose. His rack (antlery thingy being the technical term) was enormous (and they grow it in just the 2-3 months of summer and then shed it). Most bulls top out at about 1500lb but this magnificent specimen we were told was about 1700-1800. Later we saw three arguing cow mooses chasing each other. It’s just about rutting season so the girls were fighting for superiority to entice a bull. The bull we saw was still feeding and fattening himself in readiness for his fast during the weeks of battling his fellow bulls and winning his chances for rutting.

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While all of this was going on slowly but surely that persistent rain turned to sleet and then snow. As we stood outside in a clearing hearing about the history of the rangers in the newly created National Park during the 20s & 30s the snow became thicker. This little non-snow-bunny got a bit excited because it felt a little Bing Crosby-ish and I came over all White Christmas! Holding out my hand, I realised that the sleet that had melted on contact was now icicles of real snow shaped like the diagrams and vectors of snow. It really looked like that! Alright, so I have to get a life and snow is not romantic! I get it! But for a few moments it was! And by God it was MIGHTY COLD!

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We also saw ptarmigan which are a little like grouse but sadly no caribou as they were already on the move. And virtually no flighted birds, so the wildlife count hadn’t gone up a lot in number, though the moose had a bit of weight to put on the scales. No bears though, and other people have seen bears! (she says pouting)

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We also heard about some of the history of the indigenous and incoming peoples of Alaska. Unlike the conquering “heroes” that have scarred Australian history, the relations between the Athabascan natives and the incomers seemed positively collaborative. Each learning from the other! Who’d have thunk that was possible? Hmm!

More of Alaska soon

Love Chris

Posted by OwenGadflies 18:29 Archived in USA Tagged snow alaska moose denali ptarmigan fall_colours athabascan Comments (3)

Going North - REALLY North!

Searching For Light

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That’s the thing about holidays, there’s always the unexpected and not always for the good. I meant to get the next post written the day after the last one was done, but No Service got in the way!

And then hopeless wifi at the hotel; then a 5 hour train trip with more No Service; and embarkation and departure; then yesterday’s day of Glaciers; and last night’s formal dinner. So before today’s glaciers heave into view I’m grabbing a quiet moment in the library to write.

But I’m not writing about shipboard life yet.

Let’s talk about Alaska on land. We decided to do a land-cruise tour which gave us 4 nights in Princess hotels across Alaska with some tours thrown in. But first we went to Fairbanks Alaska (now hereby known as Frontierland). If you watched Disneyland when you were a kid you’ll remember Frontierland “tall tales and true of the legendary past”.

Well Fairbanks feels like you’re on the edge of no-man’s land and attracts the people who want to be on the edge of no man’s land. Shall we just say it was unusual? And there were LOTS of pick-up trucks and plaid jackets with caps pulled low over the eyes. I didn’t dare look to see if there were rifles on the back shelf in case someone saw me and wanted to debate it!!

But we were there for a purpose. Our highest bucket list item for this trip was the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. Fairbanks is RIGHT in the Arctic zone where the lights are readily seen and claims that if you stay 3 nights in their “delightful town” you have an 80% chance of seeing the lights.

As we flew in (on the Bombardier aircraft!!) we could tell we were close to landing but STILL seemed to be flying through the clouds. I was beginning to get a bit antsy and it turned out to be quite justifiable. A few metres before a very bumpy, thudding, fast, and anxiety-inducing landing, we burst out of the clouds to pouring rain! And it didn’t stop. The rain that is. Eventually after some heavy braking the plane did stop!

Northern Lights need sun flares, cold weather and clear skies.

None of that happened, until our last night (with a 5am rising scheduled the next morning). Bear in mind that the Lights had been seen brilliantly in Anchorage (NOT in the zone) just the week before! The hotel called us at 2am and all of us who’d been called gathered on the balcony. We’d dressed in a hurry and it was a very cold clear night!

With not much to see, the cold soon sorted the “it’d be nice” from the determined. Being in the latter group, we decided to move to a darker part of the property where we hoped we might have a better chance. At first it was hard to determine which was wispy clouds and which the classic “curtains of light”. As we got more familiar with staring at that sky, the curtains slowly revealed themselves. Miss 6 had especially asked for a video of the Northern Lights to which we agreed not realising how slow and subtle the movement and revelation of the lights would be. So Mum and Dad had better start preparing her for photos only!!C912D13AD7747D34C303ACA916183112.jpg

As we watched, long streaks and orbs of light would appear and slowly merge and intensify or fade. But they were all white lights, (it wasn’t a spectacular session) but the camera set on long exposures showed up greens and streaks of red. I must say I was a bit disappointed by this white light bit, although the shapes and movement were fascinating. Sadly the photos looked good on the camera but haven’t converted particularly well. But for 2 hours we watched the magic happen. By the time we left to return to snatch an hours sleep, we left the final 2 people to it!

Northern Lights? Tick

Glaciers coming. So it’s time to leave you here but I’ll be back. I promise.

Love Chris

Posted by OwenGadflies 18:25 Archived in USA Tagged alaska north fairbanks northern_lights Comments (3)

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