BEARS, BIRDS & A WHALE-OF-A-TALE

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Thursday July 21, 2016

We’d all been waiting months for this … and now it was waiting for us! Come Sunday afternoon, somewhat excited, we were welcomed aboard our lovely blue-and-white cruise-ship, the ms Zaandam. And, as we sailed away from Vancouver under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, our long-anticipated Alaskan adventure began.

Ahh, yes, eight pampered days! Bring it ON …

Day 1 at sea gave us the chance to experience shipboard-life to the full. Alaska’s fabled Inside Passage is one of the most scenic sea-lanes in the world, and one of the few where deep-draft vessels can sail close to steep mountain walls. With most of Southeast Alaska accessible only by boat or plane, this route through forested islands, endless wildernesses and sky-splitting peaks is a lifeline to the outside world.

Day 2 saw us waking up in rustic Ketchikan, clinging to the foot of steep hills along the shores of Tongass Narrows. This cheerful fishing town, supported on wooden pilings, with boardwalks and staircases everywhere, claims to be the Salmon Capital of the World. We enjoyed a short drive along the coast to nearby Herring Cove, and (with cameras locked and loaded) we headed out into the dark, spooky Alaskan rainforest, 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, the rainforest wasn’t dark and spooky (just a bit wet). And we forgot to do the chanting. But we DID go on a bear-hunt – no kidding! And we weren’t scared (well, maybe just a little).

This region is home to lots of big, free-to-roam black bears. They show up in greater numbers a few weeks from now, gorging themselves on the dead and dying salmon that are currently spawning upriver. We for our part, of course, were NOT free-to-roam (that would be highly dangerous). Instead, we joined an experienced guide on an elevated boardwalk overlooking Eagle Creek.

Eventually we spotted one, a healthy female heading our way, nose-down in the long grass. And then we realised she had two, no, three, grown-up cubs in tow. From our viewing-point above, they looked kind-of roly-poly cute – but Alaska’s black bears are powerful animals, and females with cubs can be very aggressive. We just felt privileged to be allowed briefly into their world.

While keeping one eye out for bears (we spotted several more in the distance), we also kept an eye on the trees-tops, because magnificent bald eagles (brownish juveniles and white-capped adults) are as common as seagulls in these parts.

If black bears and bald eagles didn’t satisfy our yearnings for Alaskan wildlife, the next day sure did …

Tucked away at the end of a fjord, overlooked by the massive Mendenhall Glacier, is Juneau: Alaska’s capital city. And Mad Midlife tourists aren’t the only ones who come visiting. These island-studded waters are also visited, a couple of times each year, by hungry humpback whales and their oversized babies!

A jet-powered catamaran took us out to their feeding grounds, and, before you knew it, we were right amongst them – dozens of the giant majestic mammals – as they came to the surface for air, nostrils gaping and signature humps showing proudly, then dived oh-so-gracefully for food, tail-flukes waving wetly.

It was magic. Pure magic. And while they never came as close as we wished, they got close enough for us to spot the barnacles on their tails and smell the fishy stink on their breath!

To add icing to the cake, one large adult off in the distance performed a crashing leap into the air … and, even further out, a big group of other humpbacks were spotted ‘bubble-net fishing’, working together to drive fish to the surface, then following through with massed, open-mouthed feeding-frenzy.

I told you you’d be green with envy! I was right, eh?

STILL TO COME: Gosh, where do I start? We’ve got gold-rushing (up the White Pass & Yukon Trail) … helicoptering (onto Alaska’s vast icecap) … and glacier-crunching (in the World Heritage Glacier Bay). Whatever else you do, don’t change channels …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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WHOOPS!

INTERNET HICCUPS!

Sorry this blog’s got a bit behind. We’ve been in the Alaskan wop-wops, and internet strength has ranged from ‘very slow’ to ‘try again next month’ . In civilisation now (for a few hours) – so brace yourself for a catch-up.

Cheers – John

VANCOUVER: A FEAST OF FLOWERS

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Tuesday July 19, 2016

I don’t know what you did in the weekend, but we Mad Midlife Kiwis spent some lovely leisurely hours in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Vancouver is truly a scenic dream, with rain forests and mountains towering over mirror-glass skyscrapers everywhere you look.

On Day 1, we got a quick look-see at colourful Chinatown (second in size only to San Francisco) … British-flavoured Gastown (with its unique steam clock) … magnificent Stanley Park (with 1000 acres of majestic evergreens and 10 kms of scenic seawall) … Lions Gate Bridge … plus some genuine West Coast Native Totem Poles.

Then on Day 2, we enjoyed an early-morning drive to Tsawwassen (bet you can’t pronounce it) where we caught a 90-minute ferry ride to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island … followed by a drive-by-get-out-and-walk tour of Victoria (capital city of British Columbia).

Our coach 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 accented Italian Garden, the Concert Lawn and Ross Fountain, to name just a few.

Words simply cannot convey the gorgeousness 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 this 50-acre botanical estate used to be an ugly quarry? Well, it’s true!)

STILL TO COME: We transfer to Vancouver’s cruise terminal, board the ms Zaandam, and begin our long-awaited Alaskan adventure … gliding away under the Lion’s Gate Bridge and heading north through the Inside Passage. Prepare to feel extremely envious …

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.)

IN TRAINING THROUGH THE ROCKIES

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Friday July 15, 2016

No exaggeration: the past two days were a blast! Following an early-Wednesday transfer to the Banff rail station, we settled into our near-new Silver-Leaf Service carriage aboard the luxury Rocky Mountaineer train for a scenic rail adventure that took us almost 1000kms … up-up-up into the spectacular Canadian Rockies, then all the way to the west coast of Canada and Alaska.

In between being fed, watered and waited on hand-&-foot, we kept eyes and cameras at the ready for vast award-winning views of high mountain passes, rocky lakeshores, interior ranch-lands, and hold-your-breath tunnels. The food was delicious, and the highlights were numerous: the Continental Divide, the Spiral Tunnels, the Kicking Horse Canyon, Rogers Pass and Craigellachie – where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven home.

A warm bed in a cosy hotel was awaiting us in the midway town of Kamloops. Then, next morning, our Rocky Mountaineer excursion continued its westerly direction – towards the Pacific Ocean and the coastal city of Vancouver. The views through our big picture-windows and overhead glass-domes kept changing – from the desert-like environment of the interior, through winding river canyons and pristine forests, to the coast and Cascade Mountains and the lush green fields of the Fraser River Valley.

Day #2 highlights included steep slopes and avalanche sheds along the Thompson River, the rushing waters of Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon and, finally, Vancouver, where our great rail-romp came to an end.

The Rocky Mountaineer experience …? An enthusiastic ‘thumbs-up’ from all 33 of us!

STILL TO COME: Cosmopolitan Vancouver is one of the world’s most beautiful cities – and we’ve got 60 hours to explore its nooks and crannies. Don’t go far …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Three more hotly-sought-after duckies have found new homes …

  • Wendy received our ‘Duh No.1’ Award – for having a senior moment, and losing track of her trains. At one point she was heard to observe, “Hey, there’s a train way up ahead that’s stopped …” Then, a few seconds later, “Oh, we’ve stopped, too. I wonder why?” Someone else had to point out that the ‘train-up-ahead’ was actually the front end of our train. Duh …
  • Ross earned himself our ‘Duh No.2’ Award – for having a senior moment, and misreading the name-tag worn by our Iranian chef on the train. It gave her name, ‘Shi’rin – from Culinary’ … but Ross thought it said, ‘Shi’rin – from Calgary’, and wanted to know why she lived so far away from Vancouver. Duh …
  • Beth scored our ‘Duh No.3’ Award – for having a senior-moment and being geographically impaired. Towards the end of our second day on the rails, Beth enquired (loudly and in all seriousness), “Are we in Brisbane yet?”  Duh …

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.)

BANFF … AND GLACIAL ICE

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Wednesday July 13, 2016

If you tried to design a place with scenery that would forever knock your socks off, it would probably look a lot like Banff and its surrounding Banff National Park. Everywhere you turn there are thumping great mountains, fast-flowing rivers, tumbling icy glaciers, and dazzling turquoise lakes. Yes, New Zealand’s got this stuff too, but here in the Canadian Rockies, the scale is so much greater, grander and oversized … with ooh-aah moments around every corner.

On Monday, after driving from Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway, we tasted the scenic delights of this charming resort town – like Bow Falls, the Hoodoo Lookout, Lake Minnewanka, Surprise Corner, a tasty feed at the ‘Maple Leaf Grill’, and a relaxing sleep-inducing soak (for those who were up for it) in the heated whirlpool at our Banff hotel!

Then, yesterday, a super-treat awaited us at the nearby Columbia Icefield, one of the largest accumulations of chilly white/blue ice south of the Arctic. En route we visited Lake Louise – the ‘Jewel of the Rockies’, with its stunning mountain-and-snow backdrop, and gorgeous even under cloudy, rain-threatening skies. Then we motored further north via one of the most spectacular mountain routes in North America, alongside towering peaks, tranquil lakes and cascading waterfalls.

We grabbed seats aboard a specially designed ‘Snow-Coach’ for a very steep downhill drive onto the massive Athabasca Glacier … a walk-round on its vast slip-sliding surface … and a drink of pure, freezing-cold glacial water. A true Ice Age adventure!

Earlier in the day, we interrupted an agitated ground-squirrel. And on our way back to Banff/dinner/plus shut-eye, we spotted a healthy-looking black bear, foraging in the bushes for tasty ‘buffalo-berries’.

STILL TO COME: A two-day ride on the luxury Rocky Mountaineer from Banff, up into the spectacular Canadian Rockies, then all the way to the west coast of Canada and Alaska. Stay tuned …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Another quacky Yellow Duck has found a new home …

  • Margaret (Taylor) won our ‘Knock Three Times’ Award – for tap-tap-tapping on the wrong door late last night in search (she says) of tea-bags. Yeah, right!

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.)