Cruising in Alaska

Now I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. Cruises are largely the domain of pensioners, booze-hounds, and booze-hound pensioners. It’s tacky, it’s tasteless, it’s all-you-can-eat. It’s occasionally sickness inducing. All true. But if you let this worry you, then you’ll miss the fact that cruising is brilliant. There’s something about being on an olde world form of transport, of travelling slowly, of the sway of the waves, of the smell of the salt. In the case of a place like Alaska, if you go by land you’ll miss a lot of the best bits. There’s no way like the waterway when it comes to an inaccessible part of the world like Alaska. You see things from the ocean that you’d never be able to see from the land. Like glaciers and mountains and fjords… you know, heaps of spiky geological stuff.

Lonely wilderness near the access tunnel to Whittier, Alaska
Lonely wilderness near the access tunnel to Whittier

My parents came from Australia to visit me for my birthday in Portland Oregon. I had been there for a couple of years and as you might know, Americans work extremely hard, only getting two weeks of annual leave per year. So I had not travelled for a while and was very excited that a trip to Alaska was to be my birthday present. As my sister worked for Carnival Cruises, they were able to get a good deal and we even scored balcony cabins (thankfully I was in a separate one to my parents). The trip was billed as going from Anchorage to Vancouver, but really it goes from Whittier to Vancouver, because Anchorage is on the wrong side of the gigantic Kenai Peninsula. Whittier is located deep within the stunning Price William Sound and is reached via a narrow tunnel through the mountainside from the Portage Glacier Highway. The tunnel is one lane wide and several kilometres long, and you have to wait some time before you get the green light to enter it. Whittier itself is small but pretty and has an interesting old abandoned military barracks. Unfortunately I couldn’t shake off the feeling of bears watching me as I circled it for photos. On board the ship, I thought an Australian crew member’s description of Whittier – “they accidentally replaced the S with a W” – was unfair.

Old US army barracks in Whittier, Alaska
Old US army barracks in Whittier
Whittier, Alaska
Cruising in Alaska
The ship

We cruised out of Whitter late afternoon with the water a deep blue sheet of glass. My sister had managed to get me a balcony cabin upgrade and what a cabin it was. My parents were also in a balcony cabin but in a supposedly better class, and were higher up. Herein lies the first tip- you don’t need to be higher off the ocean to get a better view. All the small things, such as dolphins, orcas, otters and icebergs, you can see better from lower down, whilst all the large things such as mountains and glaciers are appreciated equally well from either altitude. I was in cloud nine as the attendants brought me a cheese platter and a bucket of beer bottles, also courtesy of my wonderful sister. I ate and drank watching the mountains as the sun went down.

My balcony view. Whittier, Alaska
My balcony view. Pretty excited at this point.

The food on board these ships deserves a mention, primarily because it’s a key factor in a lot of peoples’ decisions to go cruising. Admittedly it is rather very good and it’s included in the ticket price so you can eat as much as you like. There are two types of dining you can choose: a dining room option which is a bit more civilised and takes meals at certain specified times, and a buffet option where you can eat at all hours and watch those notches on your belt edge up. As far as mealtimes go, there are casual nights and formal nights. The formal nights you are supposed to dress nicely, but it is really a bit of a wank to be honest, the middle class masses turning out in ill-fitting suits they can ill afford. But if, like me, you are a bit of a ponce and like dressing up, then you might enjoy the formal side of things. This being America, the food was almost as big a drawcard as the scenery. We listened politely as a plump redheaded woman with a plump redheaded daughter told us about her travel writing plans in between mouthfuls. She had been on many cruises before, as had many other passengers, and indeed as a keen scientist I noted a correlation between cruising history and girth. Nonetheless Carnival seems to be good at pulling them back for more and undoubtedly their business model depends heavily on repeat customers. Come to think of it, I am one, but I never ever admit that.

But I digress. I sleep with the peaceful rise and fall of the ship, and the next morning I cast open the curtains and the soaring chorus of Handel’s Messiah streams into my cabin. Well it doesn’t really, but it seems to as the view is one to behold. Broken chunks of ice fill the water and we are travelling along College Fjord with a snowcapped mountain backdrop. Apparently, the expedition that discovered College Fjord included a Harvard and an Amherst professor, and they named many of the glaciers after elite US colleges. According to Bruce Molina, author of Alaska’s Glaciers, “They took great delight in ignoring Princeton.” There are at least ten glaciers and they are stunning. We edge as close to Harvard Glacier at the end of the fjord as the ice will allow, but finally we need to turn around and head back out of the fjord- the captain is getting nervous. We pass some larger icebergs, and there is an audible clunk as they occasionally smash against the bow or down the sides of the ship. The larger bergs have otters chilling out on them. Being an Aussie I had never seen otters before and I laugh as they flip and flop around. They even appear to be doing the backstroke through the water from one ice chunk to the next. At one point, the ship bears down directly upon a floe housing maybe four otters. As they see the monolith approaching, they dive overboard with great exaggerated comic drama. I realise I am probably going to hell for it but I can’t help laughing.

The majestic College Fjord, Alaska
The majestic College Fjord
Icebergs ahoy! College Fjord, Alaska
Icebergs ahoy!
The bridge of the ship, navigating through the ice in College Fjord
The bridge of the ship, navigating through the ice in College Fjord

I returned to my cabin after dinner to find towels folded into swans in a heart shape by my Filipina cabin maid. “Would be gorgeous if I were here with someone,” I think, and then I feel a pang of loneliness and miss my girlfriend who is in a different country. This sets a precendent for the rest of the trip, as I regularly find towels lovingly folded into cute little animals when I return to my cabin at night. One day it’s a cute rabbit with a heart chocolate for a nose, another day it’s a little birdy with googly eyes actually stuck on. I am impressed but each day the effect is to make me feel lonely. My mother thinks my cabin maid is stalking me. I think she’s just angling for a better tip (and it works).

My cabin on the ship complete with artfully folded towels, courtesy of my cabin maid
My cabin on the ship complete with artfully folded towels, courtesy of my cabin maid

The next day we are powering down the coast of Alaska, leaving the Prince William Sound far behind and seeing so many mountains and glaciers that we begin to feel gluttonous. Before we arrive at Glacier Bay, the wildlife starts turning on a show. First we see a large pod of sea lions, and then later as Dad and I stand in our usual position on the secret deck at the bow of the ship, we see some orca fins in the distance. “Keep watching that spot,” Dad says, and I keep my camera trained on the location we last saw the fins. “Ah forget it, they’re not coming back.” Dad disappears inside the ship and no sooner does he do so than a whale breaches the water and flies high into the air, with me standing alone on the foredeck. I snap off a shot, and give something for Dad to complain about later.

Breaching orca
Breaching orca

Glacier Bay is all kinds of superlatives. It is a National Park and a UNESCO World Biosphere reserve. We cruise past elegant glaciers and loosely distributed pale blue icebergs. At one end of the Bay, the black Grand Pacific Glacier, covered in gravel and powdered rock, tumbles into the ocean. To the left is the white Marjorie Glacier, which terminates in a large cliff from which house-sized chunks of ice calve off at regular intervals. Or at least we are told. Despite sitting and waiting a short distance away we only see small ice falls. Definitely no bigger than a Volkswagen.

Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay
Kayakers in front of one of the glaciers. Gives you an idea of scale. The cave is formed from the runoff meltwater of the ice
Kayakers in front of one of the glaciers. Gives you an idea of scale. The cave is formed from the runoff meltwater of the ice. I imagine this was a decent kayaking trip for these two
Marjorie Glacier
Marjorie Glacier
Ice wall of the Marjorie Glacier.
Ice wall of the Marjorie Glacier. Hoping for one of these big chunks to snap off
Had the pool all to myself, Alaska
Strangely had the pool all to myself

As we head back out to sea, the ship activities are well underway. The crew put together an impressive array of things to do, with everything from photography courses to art auctions to dance classes. I opt for the latter and learn to tango with a bunch of lovely old ladies. At nights after dinner we hang out and dance- they are mostly from the deep South. My elderly Lousiana partner and I dance the nights away during this cruise and I am careful not to twirl her too vigorously.

As we head further south, the scenery becomes less dramatic and we come to larger towns where for the first time in days, we can alight. Skagway is an old gold mine town and is wonderfully preserved with its saloons and timbered sidewalks. From here the White Pass Railroad connects the Alaskan coast to the Canadian Yukon through the mountains. Mum opts to take the train, whereas Dad and I are keen to see some wildlife and have a break from the tourist horrorshow. We walk through the woods with a guide armed with anti-bear pepper spray and though we see trees ripped apart and scratched with claw, we see no bears (in fact, we saw none the whole trip). The rafting trip back down the river is nice but hardly adrenaline inducing. By contrast, Mum comes back raving about the train trip throught the mountains.

Streets of Skagway, Alaska
Streets of Skagway

Juneau, the next day, is the capital of Alaska. This is somewhat inexplicable given that it is on the border of Canada and has no connecting roads to any other town. To get to Juneau you need to go by ship or fly in. We visit yet another glacier and go to a rough, ragged old pub with sawdust as the floor covering. Apparently it soaks up the beer and blood more cheaply than carpet. But the real highlight in Juneau is the king crab. We order half a crab for the three of us- it’s body is the size of my head and consuming one leg is nearly enough delicious crabmeat to fill you up. It’s all washed down with bread rolls and Coke.

King crab, Juneau, Alaska
Getting my head around a king crab, in Juneau, the state capital of Alaska

In Ketchikan, we go kayaking with an old mate of Dad’s from work. This guy was in the electroplating trade in Sydney but decided to up and move to Alaska and start a kayaking company. It’s a treat- we get right out of the tourist crowds and into the wilderness. Orcas appear as we are launching the kayaks from the boat and after paddling around some lovely coastline we end with a smoked salmon lunch. Ketchikan itself is beautiful, particularly Creek Street, it’s colourful timbered houses clining to the sides of a mossy gully with a stream below.

Ketchikan, Alaska
Kayaking in Ketchikan, Alaska
Kayaking in Ketchikan
Creek Street, Ketchikan, Alaska
Creek Street, Ketchikan

The last day is spent at sea enroute to Vancover, Canada. The senses dulled, the eyes no longer easily impressed, we pass the final day drinking beer and playing mini-golf. And herein lies the final tip. Really, we did this trip back to front. If you go, start in Vancouver and head north. That way, you heighen your sensory arousal, as the scenery goes from good to incredible as you head north.


Cover Art: Fragments of the Earth

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Matt Edwards

Australian solar power scientist travels the world for 15 years, takes photos, writes stuff, has toothpaste confiscated. I like adventures that involve art, history, science, music, technology and partying. Sometimes all at once...


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