Sunday July 24, 2016

Not sure where to start. So much of what’s happened these past few days is so hard to describe …


If you’re ever looking for the tiny frontier town of Skagway, it’s nestled up the end of a beautiful fjord and surrounded by rugged wilderness and looming peaks. And that’s where, on Thursday, the Zaandam dropped anchor (well, docked, actually).

This ‘Gateway to the Yukon’ was once the busiest place in Alaska. How come? Well, Skagway, in the late 1800s, was the hectic kick-off point for the famous Klondike Gold Rush. Gold-panners streamed up every valley and sloshed through every creek in search of the promised yellow ore. And it’s hard to imagine the frightful conditions those hopeful (desperate) prospectors endured during winter, when this region freezes almost solid.

We, for our part, spent the morning doing it in style – grabbing a taste of what life was like back then by riding the antique White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway up-up-up into the mountains, past silvery-purple rock faces, death-defying canyons, and once-famous locations like Deadhorse Gulch. On the way back down, we even tried our hand at gold-panning (no kidding) – and almost everyone came away with a few shiny, lucky, glowing specks in tiny plastic bags!

But wait … there’s more!


We then got to ride a helicopter (in fact, a fleet of helicopters) ever so much higher onto Alaska’s spectacular icefield – where we were treated to eye-popping views of jagged peaks, plunging valleys, glacial rivers, before landing on the mighty Meade Glacier for a guided walking tour.

The weather wasn’t as kind as it might’ve been, but the heli-ride (a first for lots in our group) was thrilling. However, what really overwhelmed us was the scale of this landscape. Sorry, folks, but this one highlight you’ll never appreciate secondhand – you’ve gotta see it for yourself. I mean, against this huge black-and-gray-and-white ‘river-of-ice’, our helicopters looked like insects. And we humans felt like SPECKS!

But wait – there’s even more!


Having briefly witnessed the TOP end of Alaska’s glaciers (there are more than 200,000 of ‘em up in those mountains) we spent Friday getting up-close-and-personal with the BOTTOM end of a few biggies … as our ship (arriving in the foggy drawn) cruised ever-so-slowly through the UNESCO World Heritage Reserve known famously as Glacier Bay National Park. This 100km-long fjord, filled with inlets, looming peaks, frozen cliffs and floating icebergs, has more tidewater glaciers than any other place in the world.

Look, why don’t you do what we did? Put on your long undies and warm layers and woolly hats while I give you a few Staggering Glacial Facts:

  1. These shorelines are no strangers to ice. In fact, only 250 years ago, this vast region (including the Bay itself) was completely buried, up to 4000 feet thick, under the stuff.
  2. The monster ice-slides we Kiwis saw began life some 4000 years ago, and were formed high in the mountains from compacted snow (just like the glaciers in NZ).
  3. When these giant, now rock-solid iceblocks get heavy enough, they begin inching (centimetering?) downhill, reshaping the landscape and gathering rocky chunks and rubble on the way.
  4. When their front-ends finally reach the ocean (the glaciers we photographed from the ship were a LOT further away than they look, and some were one-to-two miles across) they begin breaking up …
  5. It’s called ‘calving’. It happens when slabs of ice split off from the towering face of a glacier and crash into the sea. And when it happens (especially if it’s a big chunk) it sounds like thunder, shooting water hundreds of feet into the air – and seriously rocking the boat (if you happen to be close enough)!

Anyway, some of us spent hours on deck and on our balconies trying to capture this explosive moment on our cameras – not caring that we got cold and hungry. We waited, and hoped, and held our breath, and even prayed for a calving-to-beat-all-calvings. But the best we saw was a few smaller ice-crunches that went off like a gunshot and hit the water in a cloud of spray.

Not that it mattered. Because this was yet another mind-blowing, gob-stopping Alaskan experience that we will always remember.

STILL TO COME: We say goodbye to the Zaandam, and head ashore in Seward – gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park and home to more awesome mountains, glaciers, and creatures great and small …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Four more world-famous quacky yellow ducks have been given out …

  • Kathy won the ‘Tweedle-dee-Dee, Tweedle-dee-Dumb’ Award – for commenting on a busy street corner in Victoria (Vancouver) how nice it was to hear birds again. “I’ve hardly heard or seen any birds since we arrived. ” Only problem was, what Kathy was hearing wasn’t a bird – it was the beeper on the pedestrian-crossing.
  • Bert received our ‘Very Very Early Bird’ Award – for beating the sparrows up the other morning. Frankie (his cabin-companion) came in at midnight after enjoying some shipboard fun in the Piano Bar. Bert woke up and, next thing Frankie knew, Bert was in the shower and getting dressed for the day ahead. On hearing it was only 1am, Bert complained, “I wish you’d told me sooner …”
  • George took home our ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ Award – except it wasn’t Seattle, it was on the ship. And, far from being sleepless, George managed to sleep through our afternoon Midlife Madness Cocktail Party on board the ship, and would’ve missed the entire event if someone hadn’t gone and woken the poor boy up.
  • Heather walked away with our ‘Two Early for Condiments’ Award. Looking very sleepy-eyed at breakfast this morning, she was observed scavenging through the variety of different sugar-sachets on the little container on their table, asking “What colour is the salt and pepper?” It took someone else to point out that the salt and pepper were in the big glass salt-and-pepper-shakers sitting right in front of Heather.
  • Rob (McBride) earned himself our Breaking & Entering’ Award – for making a serious attempt to get into the wrong hotel room the other night, sliding his key-card up and down, trying the handle several times, and all-but kicking the door down … much to the consternation/excitement of the two ladies from our group whose room it was.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

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About John Cooney

John Cooney and his wife Robyn have enjoyed more than their fair share of travel. They hesitate to call themselves ‘experts’ – but they’ve grabbed every chance that’s come their way to explore new countries, cultures and customs. They’ve had the privilege (both on their own and as the leaders of numerous successful group-tours) to sample many stunning destinations: Europe, the UK, Singapore, Vanuatu, the USA, Israel, Egypt, Africa, Dubai, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And their recent (and most pleasant) memories are of the places ancient-and-modern that border the Mediterranean. John and Robyn are at-home in airports, hotels, cruise ships, and the like … and they know how to make the most of a unique travel opportunity. Travel, they reckon, is an all-five-senses experience – a chance to see, feel, smell, hear and taste the world. And they’ve done it often enough to know for sure: sightseeing with a group of laid-back Kiwis is DOUBLE the fun – lots of laughs, great company, and memories that last forever!


  1. Fabulous photos John and Robyn. They brought back distant memories of the MLM trip I did with my cabin mate Joy, and sister Jackie and husband Peter. I think it was the first one Margaret & Eric Parr did – and they are still able to come with you – this time through France. I am looking forward to seeing the next part of this trip as it will be unknown territory for me.

    Go well and may God bless and protect you all – Claire M

  2. Hi to all family and friends from the South Island New Zealand. In Fairbanks tonight on the last couple of days of this wonderful tour. A vote here for Rob. His unintentional attempt to find our room at yet another hotel was not as dramatic as described ….. but he scored a yellow ducky as a souvenir and it quacks as well. So much has happened, we have seen so much and its all been amazing but the best for me has been Danali National Park…. and the trip into the tundra region. Space, and a true sense of wonder at what nature has created. And just how the National Parks work so hard at making it available to us yet endeavouring to maintain its sense of isolation. Catch up on you all in a few days. Jill McBride

  3. Hi john, I’m enjoying your blogs . Rob and I did a trip similar in 2008 and loved it . You are bringing back many wonderful memories . Thank you keep it up . My husband did a salmon fishing excursion on a flight plane and in bush etc was a highlight of the trip for him . Christine Woodhouse

    Sent from my iPad

  4. Fabulous pix Coons. Totally love the color of the glaziers. Beautiful.
    Bet you’re sad that your awesome trip is coming to an end. What a blast you’ve had.
    Much love Kerks

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