We once again interrupt our regularly scheduled Beliefnet programming for a cruise update. An earlier post was a review of the Sapphire Princess (short version? Fantastic cruise), while today’s gives some highlights of various shore excursions our family took.
In Ketchikan, the “gateway to Alaska,” I accompanied my mom to Saxman village, one of Alaska’s few remaining indigenous communities, which was fascinating. It’s the site of the world’s largest collection of totem poles, each of which tells a story. We learned a few phrases in the Tlingit (pronounced “Klinkit”) language, watched a carving demonstration and saw how the totems are created. To be honest, this is not a tour I would have chosen for myself–I was more interested in wildlife–but it turned out to be wonderful. The best part was the passion and pride that our hosts had in sharing their way of life for a few hours. It was clear that this is not just a job to them, or even a money-maker, although tourism is obviously an important part of their livelihood. They want to pass on their culture, history, and language, and are eager to help visitors understand.
Mom and I weren’t the only ones who lucked into a great shore excursion. In Ketchikan Phil and Jerusha went on a rainforest zip line adventure. (Fun Alaska fact #1: Alaska has one of the world’s largest rainforests. Who knew?) Phil said that the tour organizers were very dedicated to safety, made sure everyone was well cared for, etc. The two of them had a blast shooting over the tree tops ninety feet in the air. That kind of adventure is definitely not for me, but I’m glad they had such a great experience.
In Juneau Phil and I took a bus tour through Juneau and out to Mendenhall Glacier. Unfortunately, the tour guide was running on his own glacial pace and by the time we got to the glacier we only had 50 minutes before we had to return to the bus. That wasn’t enough time to hike to the bottom of the waterfall, which looked beautiful, but we did enjoy the well-curated museum and the photo opps from a bit of a distance. Phil got some good use out of his freaky new 3D camera.
Juneau was amazingly small to me. The state legislature is housed in an unpretentious storefront building (right) located on a little side street. It looks like most of the other downtown storefronts except that someone along the line slapped a few columns on the front to make it look a tad more important.
I kind of fell in love with Juneau. I did not, however, buy the Sarah Palin calendar that was for sale everywhere.
In Skagway, Phil went on a bike tour where you’re driven just past the White Pass Summit and then you basically coast down. He loved it. One thing to know is that it is very cold up top while you’re listening to your safety lecture and getting all your gear. One fellow in their group wore shorts—the weather had been in the 50s and low 60s down at sea level—and lots of people’s teeth were chattering. But the ride itself was gorgeous and Phil had a wonderful time.
Meanwhile, Jerusha and I were enjoying my favorite experience of the whole trip—a visit to a dog sled camp where nearly 300 dogs were doing their summer training. We absolutely loved this shore excursion. It was a bit of a hike getting out to the camp; first you take a 35-minute van ride to their base camp near the ghost town of Dyea (pronounced Die-YEE). (Alaska fun fact #2: In Alaska a town can be so completely deserted once thousands of prospectors leave that 100 years later it appears to be untouched forest. I could scarcely believe it when we passed through a reclaimed forest and discovered it was the site of a once-thriving town.)
Back to the dogs. After we got to the base camp, we took a 20-minute ride in a jeepish military vehicle called the UNIMOG. We needed it to climb the mountain to the training area where they run the dogs. When we pulled up, the dogs went crazy with excitement: Tourists! They’re finally here! Now we get to run! They were leaping vertically while they were hooked up to the sled, just popping up in the air every minute or so to get their wiggles out. We were told not to pet the dogs at this stage, because they were all business. Then we went on our wonderful (bumpy! Do wear that seat belt) sled ride for about a mile and a half. Those dogs are fast.
Our guide was a terrific young man named Robert Redington, whose grandfather Joe Redington is famous in the mushing world for founding the Iditarod, one of the two great long-distance dogsled races in Alaska. Members of Robert’s family have run the 1149-mile Iditarod a total of 37 times (his grandfather Joe did it at the age of 80!), but no one from the family has won it yet. I’d bet my money on Robert and will look out for his name in years to come.
After the ride we were able to spend some time hanging out with the dogs. It was interesting how different they were from each other, both physically and in temperament. They were all Alaskan huskies, but the Alaskan husky is a mutt breed that comes in many different colors and variations. It was pretty clear which were the mischievous, extroverted ones and which were more timid. Jerusha wisely waited until all the other people had moved on and then made a sweet connection with a shy dog who had not wanted to be petted by anyone else. Later when we listened to our talk about mushing, gear, training, etc., one of the off-leash dogs sat right at her feet and stayed there for most of the lecture. She was thrilled. She has a real way with animals. After the musher’s talk, we also got to hold a couple of 11-day-old puppies before it was time to pack up and leave.
And speaking of the Iditarod . . . one of the nice touches of traveling on Princess in Alaska is the relationship the line has with Libby Riddles, the first woman to ever win that race. She comes on board each week in Juneau to talk about her experiences, and I found it a truly inspiring lecture. Afterwards she did a book signing and Jerusha got to meet her, which was a thrill.
Also in Skagway, I took the 3-hour train ride up to White Pass Summit and back. The views were lovely, though the tour narration was sometimes a bit hokey. I’d give that tour a B.
I wish we had gotten to spend more time in Canada’s garden city. Our ship only pulled in after 7 p.m. on the last day and we left around 11:30. Four hours was not enough time to see much of Victoria. My mom and I took a “city highlights” tour that ended with high tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel. The tea was amazing, but the tour was not; our bumbling guide was almost comically disorganized and proved a rather frightening bus driver to boot. He seemed like a very nice guy, but his heart was really not in the job. If I could do it over again, we would just take a cab ride downtown and see the hotel and highlights on our own.