anghara (anghara) wrote,

Alaska: the port cities

11 September 2006 – Ketchikan

We woke up riding at anchor off Ketchikan.

For whatever reason we couldn’t or just didn’t tie up at the dock – we went ashore on so-called tenders, which were little jolly boat type things which ferried people between ship and shore. There were excursions which could be booked for every port we made landfall on, and for Ketchikan I had booked us on a Rainforest Sanctuary Walk – and we were told to muster at the theatre at 6:15 AM in order to be ferried over and catch our bus at 7 AM – I usually don’t DO mornings, don’t ask what hit me to organise THIS trip, especially since it was one of three scheduled for that day and the third one left at a civilised hour of something like 9:30. But there you have it, we were booked on it, and we presented ourselves as directed at quarter past six. There is lots of banter about, “when you land, make sure your hands are free, the locals like to toss canned salmon at you and yell ‘catch a can!’, which is how the place got its name of course…” – which isn’t true, naturally, although there WERE lots of canneries around here and it IS known as the Salmon Capital of the World. We rode the first tender out, together with a bunch of youngsters wearing bear and moose costumes, the purpose of whom became apparent as we docked in Ketchikan because they disembarked first and then the ship’s official photographers would be waiting at the top of the gangway where disembarking passengers would be parked between a “bear” and a “moose” and a souvenir portrait snapped – there was no obligation to buy these but they did a lot of them and they’d all be set out in one of the hallways later and you could go find your picture and buy it if you liked it. We bought rdeck’s bear-and-moose portrait – he looked so cute in it… But before he got to the gangway he had a bit of trouble with the boat – there was a largish step from boat to shore and he simply couldn’t make it without losing his balance so four burly young men lifted him bodily off the boat. Amazing, these cruises.

It’s WET. It’s actually raining.

Not a problem, says our driver/guide. This, for Ketchikan, is light drizzle – “I’d walk around in this without a coat,” he says blithely while the wipers are dancing frantically across the streaming windshield of his bus. We get REAL rain in Ketchikan, he says. 182 inches this year, actually. And that isn’t even bad. The record, apparently, is 205 inches. Ooof.

We get to the Rainforest Sanctuary – which is a little private reserve abutting the Tongass National Forest, of which there’s a whole lot out there, and it’s my first taste of wilderness and I am DRINKING it in – and they actually hand us little plastic rain ponchos when we get there. They are surprisingly effective, although mine keeps dripping water into my hair and my hood won’t quite stay up. Not much to be seen in the way of actual wildlife, but we get to learn a lot about bears – two dens are pointed out to us, one not so ideal because of its too-wide entrance, one, with an entrance that looks far too small for a bear to get through, decreed ideal; we learn that cubs are born to bear mothers in hibernation, and then suckle the sleeping mother for nearly three months before she wakes up and emerges back into the land of the living, which means that if she is not of a certain weight or physical condition the embryos simply do not implant, because the mother cannot support them; we learn about the natural laxative properties of skunk cabbage, and how it affects bears who haven’t, you know, gone to the bathroom for an entire winter (you probably didn’t want to know this); we see fresh claw marks on trees, and half-eaten salmon on the trails (“Oh, a bear did that, he’ll be back for it later…). We do, in fact, glimpse a black bear – a yearling, the guide says – away in the trees, but he’s too far away and it’s too damn wet to photograph properly. But it’s a joy to see him, anyway. We are also shown a particularly fragile-looking lacy green lichen which, our guide says, will only grow in places where there is zero pollution. I suddenly breathe in a whole lot deeper.

We emerge from the forest across a wooden walkway which faces streams, ponds, and a salmon hatchery – we actually see salmon leaping their way up a salmon ladder. We also see streams full of salmon, and wetlands full of gulls, and I have decided that salmon are the most put-upon fish on the planet. EVERYTHING eats them – bears, eagles, gulls when they can get ’em, and that’s before we get to the humans (guess what Deck had for dinner).

Past the hatchery and the squawking gulls, there’s a reindeer pen, and we’re handed leafy branches to feed them. They’re amazing – how they manage to keep enough balance to draw Santa’s sleigh with that RACK on their heads, I don’t know. We actually get to pet them on their rough snouts, and they nose at us for more leaves – and then we wave goodbye to Rudolph and friends and go through a lumber mill which apparently shut down only recently and when it did its entire employee population was well over the age of 65. The mill isn’t working any more but before we go on we are shown a video of its operation, and about how a tree becomes a stack of two-by-fours. Those saw blades, although still now, manage to retain a sharp-toothed predatory look to them…

Out of the mill and across a small courtyard where different wood is stacked up – yellow cedar, red cedar, black hemlock. And a large square stump of yellow cedar which is pointed out to us as the future eagle for a totem pole being carved inside a small hut to which we are now shepherded.

Inside, a Native American carver is working on a six-foot totem pole, for which that yellow cedar eagle-to-be is destined to be the crown. The totem pole is still in its early stages, and he shows us the tools that he uses to carve out his images, and it’s fascinating to watch those economical little motions of what look to be tiny blades and adzes and realise that we are watching something rather special being born. The place smells of cedar, rich and redolent, shavings all over the floor, the new-hewn cedar breathing its scent into the air.

I got a present here. A very special one. One that the carver gave me, after the rest of the crowd had left. Of this, I will only give a hint – when the first “Worldweavers” book comes out, read it, and take note of what is Cheveyo’s staff.

We tarried in Ketchikan itself long enough for me to go and find my bracelet and the Ketchikan charm (a salmon, of course!) and then we caught the tender back to the ship. We had lunch back on the “Princess”, in the company of a thoroughly annoying English couple who had apparently made cruising their very existence – the woman kept dropping names like there was no tomorrow, the QEII, the “Queen Mary”, and damn but the ceilings were low in this dining room on the “Sapphire Princess” – why, on the Queen Mary the dining room had three floors and you could ask to be seated right out there where the thing opened up above you, and they had this book which told them everything about every cruise ship there was and that was what they used to make their cruising choices and did we read that book honey and did it mention anything about this low ceiling? I said we’d enjoyed Ketchikan immensely and she waved a hand and said, “Enjoyed? This? My dear, it’s a shanty town, isn’t it…?” They were going on with the “Princess” all the way to Beijing, which was where this particular cruise was going after we would leave it in Whittier, and I later remarked to Deck that it was just as well that these two were going on to China because that was where they apparently belonged – I’d never met a more jaded pair of people in my life.

We went up to the swimming pool deck, after, to watch an ice-carving demonstration – and a pair of stocky, gumbooted men from the Philippines of all places (one does not naturally think of the Philippines as a place where the art of ice carving is commonly practiced) were handed chisels and a pair of large ice cubes. Within twenty minutes one of the guys had produced a remarkable swordfish. The other – well, it was harder to guess – the thing was still pretty but when invited to guess at what it was supposed to be one of the audience hazarded, “ A bear drinking coke”. It wasn’t. It was just – strange and pretty. And pretty amazing to watch. (The staff member supervising the demonstration did warn anyone who wanted to go for a swim that the swimming pool, into which all the ice shavings would be swept, would be… a tad chilly for a while…)

We weighed anchor at two o’clock and left rainy Ketchikan in our wake. We didn’t know it yet, but that was more or less the last time we would see rain in Alaska.

At dinner – with pleasanter companions than we had had at lunch – a couple from German Switzerland, sitting right by the window, suddenly interrupted the conversation when the husband sat up and pointed and said, “Das vas a vale!”

“Where?” I said, scrambling to the window, having correctly interpreted the sentence to indicate the presence of an actual cetacean.

I was in time to see a gray hump break the water.

“Humpback,” I said, getting back to my seat, my eyes full of magic and tears. “That was a humpback whale.”

“I know,” said my husband, looking at me with a warm smile.

And right there and then I did it. I lost my heart to this place. Completely.

12 September 2006 – Juneau: The Silver Day

Juneau, the capital city of Alaska – typically, idiosyncratically, inaccessible except by sea and air. No roads lead in or out of this place. When we berthed in the harbour, the place was properly fantastic – a city on the edge of the water, with sometimes almost sheer mountains with long winding waterfalls rearing up almost directly behind it.

Our original excursion in Juneau called for a trip out to the local pet glacier, the Mendenhall Glacier, and then out to another woodland adventure involving, in the end, a salmon bake – this last for rdeck’s sake because salmon is his favourite dish and where else could he have the best possible salmon if not here at the source? But the previous day in Ketchikan had kind of sobered me up a little bit – and the tour said that it would go, “rain or shine”. The prospect of a salmon bake in shine might have been appealing, but one in rain was less so, and I don’t eat fish anyway. So I decided that rdeck could sate his salmon craving elsewhere and changed out trip to another two-parter – the glacier, and then an afternoon of whale watching. The latter had an added attraction in that they promised a refund if we saw no whales (although I was perfectly content not to refund a cent if they threw a humpback at me).

Off we went, then, off the ship, and into another tour bus… and a tour guide and driver who was worth the price of admission all by himself. His name was Ron and the first thing he said to us was, “welcome to Ron’s bipolar tour” – we would have two tour guides, not one. The first was a total joke-a-minute stand up comic who had the entire bus in stitches for the duration of the trip. The second – and he did this SO well, dropping his voice and making it go all level and professional – was the “teacher Ron”, who gave us the stats and the facts and was generally more staid and level-headed. THAT Ron “introduced” himself by saying, “Hello, this is Ron, I have to apologise for that first Ron, we ‘re still working on his meds…” and then cracked up into the first Ron again and said, “… and the last time I said that two ladies on the bus spoke up and asked what I needed…” He told us lots of stories. Here’s a sampling:

- Only in Alaska. A passenger jet was forced to return to the ground… after it collided with a salmon on take-off. No shit, Sherlock. The plane took off directly into the flight path of an eagle, which had just nabbed a salmon. The eagle, startled by the presence of a much bigger bird, veered frantically away; they are unable to let go of their prey once they’ve locked it into their claws, but the salmon in question was still alive and squirming and the eagle was sufficiently at a disadvantage that the salmon managed to drop out of its clutches…. And land on the windshield of the aircraft…. And crack it. “I can just see the pilot filing the paperwork with the FAA for that one,” Ron said. “ ‘I collided with a salmon on take-off’. And the FAA coming back with, ‘Son, you have to aim higher next time.’ ”.
- “There’s the offices of the local paper,” Ron said, pointing to our left. “The ‘Juneau Empire’. You have to wonder – a landlocked town of some 32 000 people, and it has a newspaper called the ‘Empire’. We call it the ‘Juneau Vampire’, anyway. When I first moved here I remember picking up the paper and finding that the entire front page was devoted to a local scandal where a headmaster of a local school had scheduled an event opposite a basketball tournament and everyone was shocked, shocked and horrified… but if you wanted any international news on what was happening in the world you had to turn to page 4.” (my kind of town, this)
- “Did you know that Alaska was purchased from the Russians for just over $7 million dollars – which works out to roughly 2 cents and acre?” (wow. Today, that would buy two mansion-sized houses. If that.)
- “That’s the salmon hatchery, right there. A couple of years ago this big sea lion came up and gorged himself on salmon, and then he climbed up right here on the highway for a nap. They came after him waving more salmon in his face going heeeeere, little sea lion come this way, trying to lure him away – he was BIG, a ten-footer weighing enough to sink a small fishing boat – but he had had his fill and wanted none of that, he just wanted to sleep. So he did, right there in the road. And they eventually wound up putting orange safety cones around him on the highway and left him alone until he woke up and took himself back to the water. And yes, he did make the front page of the Vampire.”

He deposited us on the parking lot of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centre eventually, told us to run off and play for an hour and a half, and that he would be back to get us then. “I’m not allowed to wait there,” he said jovially. “If you aren’t there, we’ll leave without you. Now go and have fun, and be careful of bears.”

And so I walked away from the bus. And across a generic parking lot. And through a wooden-roofed pavilion.

And into the presence of my first glacier.

There it lay, a dull silver under greyling skies, its surface sometimes streaked with dirty gray with glimpses of a glowing blue core somewhere underneath, old ice; snaking down from the mountain in a meandering stream of a still river which moved too slowly for the eye to see, finally touching the water, the still water into which it reflected as though in a mirror – who is the fairest of them all?

Breathless, astonished, winded with the glory, aching with the knowledge that it was receding and growing smaller every day, that it was doing so even as I stood there watching – I took pictures, hopeless pictures which would serve as a palimpsest for memory in times to come. There is something huge and primal in a glacier, something that doesn’t seem possible to squash into a photograph – and yet I tried, spending memory recklessly (or at least memory cards), trying to gather up enough of it to take a sense of what I had experienced here back with me. I went down to the water’s edge. Back again. Up the path. Down it. Angled my camera this way and that. Stared. Stared some more. Felt indescribable things. Took more pictures.

The allotted hour passed in a blur.

On the way back to the bus, someone pointed to the trees on the hillside and shouted “EAGLE!” A hundred cameras and every possible kind of binoculars immediately swung up in the direction of the pointing finger – and yes indeedy, there he was, a bald eagle, sitting in a tree and staring down at us in what appeared to be a mild disapproval as a hundred cameras whirred into action and a swell of whispers rose as people pushed and pointed.

“I GOT him!” I crowed as we climbed back onto the bus, playing the image back on my camera’s LCD.

“Ooooh, yes, you certainly did!” chorused a few people in the back who craned their necks to see.

“Okay,” said Ron, “is everyone here? All right, we’re on our way. That there on your right, that’s fireweed gone to seed – it was a fiery red last week, but it’s past its prime right now. On your right that’s Auk Lake – and in the local dialect Auk means ‘lake’ so that’s actually Lake Lake. You’ll be going off to watch your whales from Auk Harbor, which is thus Lake Harbor. Oh, and I don’t want to alarm you, but your whalewatch catamaran captain’s name… is Gilligan…”

The cat was comfortable, and comfortably not overcrowded. We chugged off into what was comfortingly called the Favorite Channel, on a sea that was as flat and still as a sheet of silver; away on the shore, glimpses of distant glaciers glinted like blue diamonds in the valleys. And not too long into the cruise, we spotted it – a four-foot high spume.

Thar she blows.

I scrambled up to the top deck with everyone else who had brought a camera and there they came, the humpbacks – the rolling gray backs with the characteristic humps, with a full-grown whale reaching up to 49 feet in length and more than 30 tons in weight. They’re BIG. And there we all were, trembling on the railing, watching them blow and spout and cavort and dive.

“Give me a tail,” a woman beside me said, her voice soft, almost pleading. “Give me a tail. Please.”

And they did – they dived, and the flukes came up, and the cameras went nuts. I kept my finger on the button, peeled off a series of shots, played back what I’d got with almost a superstitious awe… and there it was, the tail, the fluke, the perfect classic shot.

“YES!” I shrieked, dancing around like a dervish. “I got it! I got it! I got it!”

We met the whales several times that day. Sometimes closer, sometimes farther away, they swam and dived and showed us those fabulous whale tails all afternoon. I kept on bouncing on the chair next to rdeck and going “WHALESwhaleswhaleswhales! WHALESwhaleswhaleswhales!” until he too was grinning like a loon, infected by the sheer weight of my joy.

We saw a few other things – we saw a sea otter, which our naturalist assured us was almost unique at that particular time and place; we hovered for a while near a sea lion sanctuary island, and watched a heaving mass of them grunting and waddling around anxiously as our presence disturbed their wallowing in the sun. We saw a couple of them swimming off our bow, later, surprisingly agile and athletic after we saw them so awkward on shore. We saw a bunch of harbor seals. But it was the whales I took away with me on that silver day, their presence and their spirit. I have seen a humpback whale in the wild, and I am the richer for it.

We were picked up by Ron at the conclusion of the whale watch, and returned to Juneau.

I scrambled around to find my Juneau charm, and before I got there – and for those who know me this won’t be much of a surprise – I stumbled into a shop selling plushes and walked away with a little brown plush bear with fluffy paws and a doofy expression, promptly named Juneau. rdeck grumbled that he could never plan early enough for Christmas – he wanted to get me a plush for Christmas, and there I went and got one anyway. But I DID get a Christmas present in Juneau. I am, however, not allowed to talk about it or think about it until Christmas, so I will tell you about it then. (Nothing wrong with a good cliffhanger. Heh.)

We got talking, over coffee, to an old lady on crutches who was driving around Alaska with another old lady (“total age 140 between us”, as she put it) who was writing an article about how a disabled and elderly woman might navigate Alaska. They were driving around in an RV, had been doing so all summer, and the one we got talking to was a genuine delight. She gave us her card and her email and I have no doubt that we will be in touch.

Back to the ship, eventually, and dinner – and this time we sat next to a couple from Las Vegas who had done this particular trip before. I was full of glaciers and whales and impressions of a day cast from silver skies and silver water.

The man from Las Vegas nodded at all this. “It gets better,” he said. “It only gets better. You just wait and see.”

13 September 2006 – Skagway: The Golden Day

Dawson. Chilkoot Pass. Lake Bennet. White Pass.





When I had been a little girl, two books, mirror images of one another, had fired my imagination – “White Fang”, about a wolf tamed into civilization; “Call of the Wild”, about a dog who found the inner wolf and returned to the wilderness from whence his ancestors had once come. Jack London’s visions of the Yukon, the tooth-and-fang-and-club-and-gun world of the gold rush days.

There is a scene in “Call of the Wild” which I can never read without bawling – John Thornton had just made a rash bet that his dog, Buck, can break out a sled frozen in place at unspeakable temperatures – and then pull that sled, loaded with a thousand kilograms, for the distance of a hundred yards. An impossible thing for a dog to do.

And he knows it.

But there is now sixteen hundred dollars riding on this.

On the one hand, it is money he could use; it is also money he doesn’t have, if he loses.

On the other hand, this is his dog, his loved dog – and it was love and pride that made that rash bet in the first place.

On the one hand, the master would give anything to be able to take his words back. On the other, there is the inchoate knowledge that the bet was not a rash one. On the one hand, there is fear. On the other, there is faith.

He puts the dog in his harness, clips the harness onto the loaded, frozen sled, and then kneels down beside the dogs head and takes it between his hands.

“As you love me, Buck,” he whispers. “As you love me.”

And gives the command.

And the dog does this impossible thing.

As hats and gloves are jubilantly tossed into the air in the hubbub that greets this achievement, John Thornton is lost in the poignancy of this moment, holding that dog like it was his child, while a rich and oblivious idiot offers him a thousand dollars for the dog – twelve hundred…!

“No, sir,” John Thornton says, openly weeping. “You can go to hell, sir. It’s the best I can do for you, sir.”

I grew up on this. On the images of the vast and lonely emptiness of the Alaskan interior, with gold in them thar hills. It was part of my childhood – I had heard those names all my life as part of some legend, some myth bigger than life, bigger than it had any right to be, painting things in my mind…

…and Skagway. Skagway was the gateway to it all. The port where the dogs and the sleds and the supplies and the gold and the brothels with the tinny pianos were. Skagway, which had no right to really exist outside of books and movies.

Which was real.

We found ourselves berthed in its harbour in the early hours of the morning, right next to a gigantic rock face which someone had had the bright idea to paint up as a series of billboards – some of them painted on sheer walls so high off the ground, and apparently so inaccessible, that the mind boggled as to how the thing had been got at in the first place with paint and brush. There seemed to be barely enough room for a narrow wharf, with mountains glorious mountains all around us, rearing into the dawn-pinked sky.

It was another early morning for us, for this was a full-day excursion –we would take the White Pass train, retracing the trails that the early gold prospectors had to do on foot or with dogs or with mules or with poor fragile horses of which so many died in these cold inhospitable ranges that there’s a place called Dead Horse Canyon in their memory. The rail cars had a real honest-to-goodness little pot-bellied iron stove in them for heating purposes, and it soon became apparent why – one could go out onto the aprons of the carriages in order to take photos, but it was BITTERLY cold out there and it was pretty toasty warm when one ducked back into the heated carriage to warm one’s frozen hands. The train ride was… astonishing. The views were breathtaking, particularly the glimpse of Skagway harbor we caught in between two sheer mountains, a promise of blue waters and access to the civilized world – how that must have lifted spirits as the prospectors trudged down these passes from their inhospitable eyries, coming down from the Yukon!

But if this was breathtaking, more was to come.

At the top of White Pass, in Frasier, we crossed the Canadian border and boarded a coach to take us up into the Yukon itself.

Let me just say this. It was September. I was expecting a little bit of autumn colour. I was hoping for more than just a little bit.

I was not prepared for what we found.


Mountainside after mountainside of sweeping visions of gold – birches and aspens, bright gold, gold shading into coppery burnt orange, dark ancient gold, gold gold gold. I wept, several times, from the weight of beauty – unbelieving, astonished, overwhelmed. It was all around me – it was nothing at all like those harsh visions I had read as a child, but this was the place where the spirit of Buck still lived. As you love me, Buck, thank you – because this gold was a gift from the gods themselves. The sun spilled from a blue sky, and the gold flamed and flickered in the light, across lakes, down into ravines, opening into vistas of distant valleys all covered in gold.

I was crying the other day all over again as I sorted those pictures. I cannot believe I saw these things that I have brought home photographs of, that my living eyes have rested on this glory. It was the perfect time – the utterly perfect time – they said it had been raining only a few days before, and we had full sun – and this was the heyday, which would very quickly pass away. We were seeing it at its glorious peak, at its absolute best, at its unbelievably most perfect.

We stopped for lunch at a little place called Caribou Crossing, no more than a handful of buildings including a place where we had lunch and where two ladies, when they found out I was a writer of books, insisted on having their picture taken with me;, a bunch of excited huskies (they are SUCH attention whores, those dogs!); a gold-panning place (yes, I did it; yes, I got gold; no, it isn’t enough to retire on); and the inevitable gift shop. We were only there for a short while, and then it was back into the glory country on our way back to Skagway and the ship. We stopped in a little place called Carcross (which is a contraction of yet another Caribou Crossing, and not an indication of anything to do with actual vehicles) and just beyond it was Lake Bennet of Jack London fame, where the prospectors gathered before hitting the trail to Dawson and the gold streams of the Yukon.

As you love me, Buck…

It was all around me. The memory. The shimmer. The GOLD. This was a golden day.

We drove down in the coach, down the same pass through which the railroad runs – but, disconcertingly, it was just not the same experience at all. We could see the road across the pass, from the train, when we had gone up – and we could clearly see the tracks from where we were on that road now – the two emphatically shared the same deep valleys… and yet it was not the same. How strange and magical that was.

Back to Skagway, where I had two obligations – I had to find my Skagway charm for the bracelet (it was supposed to be a train, but they had run out, so I got a totem pole charm instead…) and I needed to buy a present for a good friend (you met him, if you’ve been on my website. He designed it) who had generously lent me a wide-angle lens for this trip, a lens which stayed on my camera for most of the train ride up the White Pass because some things just NEED wide angle. Skagway has been kept funky, with its buildings maintained as they might have looked back in the day; its main street is fabulous, straight out of a theme park, down to the melodrama being advertised in one turn-of-the-(last)-century hall, an entertainment which might not have been that out of place when the grizzled prospectors walked these streets.

The sun was shining brightly. The day was full of gold.

It had got better. The man from Las Vegas had been right.

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Tags: alaska, travel

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