BEAR-HUNTING IN KETCHIKAN

ALASKA BLOG 08

Tuesday Sept 17, 2013

APOLOGIES: This blog entry was sent from Alaska a couple of days ago – but disappeared mysteriously into the clouds. Sorry about that, folks …

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The cheerful fishing town of Ketchikan clings to the shores of Tongass Narrows, and is supported on wooden pilings, with boardwalks heading in every direction. Salmon come here each year, fighting their way upriver, spawning, and then dying in their countless thousands (we saw them, and smelled them!) – and dozens of canneries have made Ketchikan the salmon capital of the world.

Its name supposedly comes from the native term ‘Katch Kanna’, which roughly translates ‘spread wings of a thundering eagle’ – which could well be right, because bald eagles are frequently seen watching from waterside perches. We saw them, too, but more on that in a minute …

While three of our Kiwis went ashore to visit the Saxman Native Village and sample the rich living culture of Alaska’s Native Americans (the Tlingits), the rest of us loaded our cameras and headed into Alaska’s dark spooky woods, chanting,

We’re going on a bear-hunt! We’re going on a bear-hunt!

We’re not scared. We’re not scared.

Uh-oh …

Actually, we forgot to do the chanting. But we DID go on a bear-hunt – no kidding! We weren’t scared (well, maybe just a little bit). And nor were we disappointed.

The Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary at Herring Cove is home to lots of big black bears. These beautiful animals are free-to-roam (not captive), and they show up in greater numbers this time of year to gorge themselves on the dead and dying salmon that flood the lakes and streams. We, for our part, were NOT free-to-roam (that would be highly dangerous, given that these powerful animals weigh-in at 200, 300, 400lbs – or up to 900lbs for a fully grown male – and females with cubs can be especially aggressive). Instead, we joined an experienced guide for a walking expedition – along dirt tracks where fresh bear skat (droppings) told us that bears had passed this way not long before … and across elevated swing-bridges that led to viewing platforms erected high in the trees.

We spotted one big fat female, fishing for salmon in a fast-flowing stream … then another … then a couple more … And then, for the next two or three hours, they just kept coming (someone in our group counted 17 of them) – staring up at us occasionally with their beady eyes … but quite content to pursue their splashing and sniffing and feasting and wading and wandering and climbing and snoozing while we marvelled at them from above. A mother appeared at one stage, two cubs in tow, and we watched as first the cubs, then Mum, climbed high into an old tree for some playtime and a nap.

From a distance they looked kind-of roly-poly cute – but the closer we got the more impressed and respectful we became. Alaska’s black bears are truly stunning, wild and untamed, much bigger and stronger than us … and we felt awed and honoured to be allowed briefly into their world.

It was with great reluctance that we finally left them to their rainforest home, and motored thoughtfully back to our ship.

PEOPLE NEWS: Over the past day or two we’ve had a rush of male applicants for our hotly contested Quacky Ducks:

  • The ‘I-Know-I-Put-It-Somewhere Award’ went to John S – who forgot to bring his sightseeing voucher with him when we came ashore yesterday, and had to gallop back onboard for a frantic search of his cabin.
  • The ‘Bear Behind Award’ was won by John N – who somehow got separated from our group in the wildlife sanctuary, and had to ask directions from another guide.
  • The ‘Glued To The Telly Award’ was earmarked for Tony – who, while trying to do two things at once (watch the end of a good western AND get dressed for dinner) was observed by Barbara as he struggled unsuccessfully to feed his belt through the loops in his trousers. Tony finally stopped, dragged his eyes from the screen, and looked down to see what the problem was. “Oh,” he said, guiltily. “I think I’ve put YOUR pants on instead of mine!”

TOMORROW: Leaving Alaska in our wake, we arrive back in Vancouver, cosmopolitan City of Glass, and say goodbye to the Volendam and her friendly crew. But don’t close the book, because a whole new chapter is about to begin …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want 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. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

GLACIER-CRUNCHING IN SKAGWAY & BEYOND

ALASKA BLOG 07

Sunday Sept 15, 2013

Not sure where to start, so much has happened since we last reported in! And so much of what happened is so hard to describe, I’m not sure I can do it justice. But here goes (in three parts) …

#1: GOLD-RUSH TRAIN

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, yesterday, the Volendam 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!

#2: HELI-SPECTACULAR

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, cascading snowfalls and massive glaciers, before landing on one of these ‘rivers-of-ice’ (the mighty Chilcat Glacier) for a guided walking tour.

I can tell you this unique experience was UTTERLY FANTASTIC AND TOTALLY OVERWHELMING – but those few words can’t begin to describe the vast scale of what we saw. Sorry, folks, but this one highlight you’ll never appreciate secondhand – you’ve gotta see it for yourself. I mean, just look at the pix: against this huge black-and-white backdrop, our helicopters looked like insects. And we humans felt like SPECKS!

Believe me when I say: there were some very elated, can’t-stop-talking-about-it, Kiwis at dinner last night, who were also struggling to put this unforgettably special encounter into words.

But wait – there’s even more!

#3: GLACIER BAY

Having witnessed the TOP end of Alaska’s glaciers (there are more than 200,000 of ‘em up in those mountains, of which we might’ve seen 100) we spent today getting up-close-and-personal with the BOTTOM end of a few biggies … as our ship (arriving in the pink of 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 200 years ago, this region was completely buried (up to 4000 feet thick) under the stuff.
  2. The monster rivers of ice we Kiwis saw yesterday and today 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 today 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, we stood for hours on deck today 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.

TOMORROW: Having reached the northernmost point of our cruise, we’re now heading back the other way to Ketchikan … with time for some totem-poling, axe-throwing and (I kid you not) bear-hunting. We don’t want to miss this – and you won’t want to, either!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want 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. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

WHALE-WATCHING IN JUNEAU

ALASKA BLOG 06

Friday Sept 13, 2013

6-Juneau01

I wasn’t planning on writing a blog tonight. I was planning on having a night off, going to bed early, and reading a good book. But, after cruising night and day (since Wednesday) through the island-studded waters of coastal Alaska, we docked around lunchtime in the country’s capital, Juneau – small, unphotogenic, nothing to write home about. But it is home to the native Tlingit Indians and their totem-pole artistry. And visitors come here from all over the world to kayak, dog-sled, raft, sightsee, fish and whale-watch. Which is exactly what we Kiwis got up to this afternoon. And it was so FANTASTIC that I simply won’t sleep unless I tell you about it.

We drove by coach to scenic Auke Bay, where a jet-powered catamaran took us out on an Alaskan-style wildlife safari. These deep, glacial, beautiful waterways are home to seals, sea-lions, bald eagles … and hungry humpback whales. And we wasted no time spotting their tell-tale spouting.

Before you knew it, we were right amongst them – lolling lazily on the surface, their nostrils gaping behind their heads and their signature humps showing proudly, then diving oh-so-graciously for food, their huge tail-flukes waving wetly in the air.

I don’t know what these monstrous, majestic mammals (longer than a bus and 5 metres wide across the tail) thought of us, rushing eagerly from one side of the boat to the other, searching, shouting, pointing, and aiming our binoculars and cameras in all directions at once, but we humans were utterly captivated by them.

It was magic. Pure magic. These graceful humpbacks had travelled all the way from their breeding grounds in Hawaii to their feeding grounds here in Alaska. And they kept coming up for air close enough to our boat (I kid you not) that we could spot the barnacles on their giant tails and smell the fishy stink on their spouting breath!

You’re gonna be green with envy when you see our pix. So here they are. And, if I sign off quickly, I can still have that early night …

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TOMORROW: The adventure continues as our Mad Midlife Kiwis ride gold-rush trains and helicopters in Skagway. Whatever you do, don’t change channels!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want 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. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

FLOWERING IN VICTORIA

ALASKA BLOG 05

Thursday Sept 12, 2013

Captain Cook is the first known European to set foot in what is now British Columbia. Just thought you’d like to know that. Anyway, on Tuesday morning, abandoning our VERY comfortable beds in the Sheraton Wall Centre Hotel, we Kiwis grabbed a bus-ride to Tsawwassen (bet you can’t pronounce it?) where we caught a 1½-hour ferry ride to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island.

Ted (our funny, laid-back driver) gave us a short tour of Victoria, capital city of BC … then dropped us off for a leisurely-romp-plus-botanical-treat-plus-lunch in the world-famous Butchart Gardens … featuring the fragrant Rose Garden, the relaxing Japanese Garden, the unique Sunken Garden, the Italian Garden, the Concert Lawn and Ross Fountain, to name just a few.

Words simply cannot convey the loveliness and colour of this magnificent place. So, instead, grab an eyeful of some of the flowery photos we took. (Would you believe me if I told you these 50 glorious acres used to be an ugly quarry? Well, it’s true!)

Finally, we had time to explore the shops and shoreline of the Inner Harbour before returning via ferry to our Vancouver hotel.

Yesterday, after waking and downing yet another yummy breakfast, our Mad Midlifers ventured forth on their own in this stunning Canadian port … dabbling in a little exploring, sightseeing and shopping in downtown streets, or strolling in elegant Stanley Park.

Then, come midday, we checked-out of the hotel, drove to the cruise terminal, and boarded the ms Volendam for our long-awaited Alaskan adventure …

We got the rest of yesterday and all day today to enjoy luxury shipboard-life to the full. Our route, currently, is taking us North to Alaska (remember the song?) … deep into one of nature’s most isolated wonders, the Inside Passage (accessible only by sea or by air), and the up-close magnificence of the Ice Age. But more about that tomorrow …

PEOPLE NEWS: There’s been a Midlife Madness rush on our popular yellow Rubber Duckies – with three handed on to grateful recipients:

  • The ‘Forget-Me-Not Award’ was claimed by Margaret – who, having already left stuff on the coach on at least two previous occasions, managed, as we were leaving the Sheraton Hotel, to depart without her bright pink suitcase. The bag was spotted, fortunately, sitting sad and alone in the vast empty foyer – and soon thereafter was happily reunited with Margaret.
  • The ‘Pin-Up Girl Award’ was won by Graham – but, first, I need to give you some background. Graham’s main bag went missing the other day (rotten luck) in Banff or Kamloops or parts in between. And, when it failed to show up, Graham had no alternative but to go out (in Vancouver) and buy himself a new suitcase and a new wardrobe. Tonight, at our group’s cocktail party, Graham was strutting around in a fresh-out-of-the-packaging shirt when Yours Truly noticed a pin (which Graham had overlooked) in the armpit of the shirt … thus saving Graham from being painfully pierced asunder.
  • The ‘Funny Place To Keep A Camera Award’ was presented to Ruth – who brought her camera to dinner tonight, took some photos of a nice ice-carving in the entrance to the dining room, and then came to our table muttering, “I don’t know where I put my camera-case?” Then, a few minutes later, she exclaimed, “Oh, HERE is it … in my ARMPIT!”

TOMORROW: We’re going whale-watching in the humpback feeding-grounds out from Alaska’s capital, Juneau! Betcha wish you were with us – RIGHT?

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want 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. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

IN TRAINING FOR THE ROCKIES

ALASKA BLOG 04

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The past two days have been a blast – although they began with an unexpected hold-up. A goods-train had derailed overnight on the Canadian-Pacific track, and instead of boarding the Rocky Mountaineer in Banff, we had to be bussed an hour-and-a-half to the other side of the pile-up.

It made little difference, however. Before you could say “Toot-toot!” our famous luxury train was rumbling down the tracks … beginning its long scenic journey into and over the spectacular Canadian Rockies, all the way to the far-west side of Canada.

Yesterday and today have, frankly, been a lovely blur. And the views from our big picture windows kept changing constantly: vast expansive ranchlands, dry-as-dust deserts, lush green forests, rocky lakeshores, high mountain passes, winding green-blue rivers, hold-your-breath cliffs, and pounding, swirling rapids.

We missed the Spiral Tunnels and the Kicking Horse Canyon (thanks to the derailment) – but there were still highlights-a-plenty: the Continental Divide, Rogers Pass, Craigellachie (where the last spike of this seemingly-endless railway was hammered home), the Cascade Mountains, the Fraser River Valley, and the rushing waters of Hell’s Gate.

We were fed and watered and waited on hand-&-foot. A running commentary kept us entertained and informed. As usual, on these Mad Midlife outings, we had more fun than we were legally entitled to. And our train was even chased, at one point, by a grumpy grizzly bear – see photo. (If you believe that, you’ll believe anything!)

We made only two stops – the first, last night, in Kamloops (a sunset-bathed city in the heart of British Columbia), where all 750 passengers were ‘detrained’ and put to bed in hotels. And the second, late this afternoon, in the stunning coastal city of Vancouver, where (just two hours ago) we tucked into a lip-smacking meal of salmon and prawns.

It’s nearly midnight now, and I’m pooped. (How come being pampered on a luxury train and pointing our cameras out the window is so tiring?) Although we’re in a posh hotel and no longer on the Rocky Mountaineer, we’re still rocking’n’rolling (the weirdest feeling). My Mad Midlife colleagues (including my beloved) have all hit the sack – and, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna do the same.

So it’s goodnight from me … and it’s goodnight from her.

PEOPLE NEWS: Nominations continue to flood in for our famous Rubber Duckies – and a third was claimed this evening:

  • The ‘Senior Moment Award’ was given to Bev – who, during our restaurant dinner tonight, happened to pause, mid-bite, to see what folk on the table next door were eating, and discovered to her surprise that those people were OUR people (the other half of our group). Bev was heard to utter in a puzzled voice, “Oh, I wondered why they seemed so familiar …” (You had to be there!)
  • That Barbara, by the way, who claimed the ‘Armed & Dangerous Award’ a few days ago, was Barbara B (not Barbara N).

TOMORROW: We’ll be ferry-riding in Victoria, and romping in the Butchart Gardens. So don’t go away – you might miss something!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want 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. And if you want to receive future blogs hot-off-the-press in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!