For years I have heard from people about the lures of Alaska. From those that have taken cruises there. From those that have travelled there to fish. From those that have travelled there to view the landscapes and the wildlife. As far as I can recall, I cannot remember anyone telling me that they had a bad time or did not enjoy the trip.
So when the opportunity presented itself to travel into the northern climes of that far off state, I jumped at the chance. I had to see what all the fuss was about. So my wife and I agreed to go, along with my law partner Brent and his wife Jennifer, on a 7-day cruise. There are two types of cruises to Alaska: the outward voyage and the inward passage. We did the innie as opposed to the outtie.
We would leave Seattle Sunday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. Travel that night and all the next day before arriving at Ketchikan, Alaska on Tuesday morning. Wednesday would be the Tracy Arm fjord along with the iconic Sawyer Glacier. That afternoon we would arrive in Juneau. Next day would be Skagway, bursting at the seams with 850 inhabitants. Then a day at sea. Then Saturday evening at Victoria, a beautiful island belonging to British Columbia but which our taxi driver informed us that the United States “lost” to the Canadians. I don’t recall ever losing something to the Canadians, much less an entire island, but whatever.
So what would I say about Alaska? Well, in a word, impossible-to-describe-with-just-one-word. Alaska is three times the size of Texas, and has a population of about 700,000. Half of those people live in the Anchorage area, and 85,000 live in Juneau. I kept coming back to these numbers in my mind throughout the week. Alaska is simply a land that has been left largely untouched by humans. And from what I saw during the week, I hope it remains that way.
After a couple of days, I finally was able to put my finger on the feeling that I had been experiencing since arriving in Alaska. It was a feeling of abundant life all around you. It seems the climate has a lot to do with that. Southern Alaska is at the exact right distance from the extreme cold temperatures in the north and the much hotter climates of the equator. In fact, much of this area is technically considered a rain forest. Although the Winters can be bitterly cold, the other seasons of the year provide very mild days. This mildness, combined with the cooler water temperatures of the Pacific, gives the area a freshness that is not possible in other climes. It is a perfect confluence of conditions that allows nature, and all that it encompasses, to thrive.
We went salmon fishing in the creeks of Ketchikan. The morning was overcast but beautiful. The ever-present smell of pine was thick. The salmon come into the rivers to spawn, and then they die. The salmon that hatch make their way from the rivers out to the ocean and someday many moons later they will return to that exact river and spawn. And then they too will die. As you stand there in the river, with salmon swimming all around, you begin to feel very insignificant. The salmon swim almost oblivious to our presence. Your initial thought is that they are not very smart. But then you begin to realize that they really don’t care if we are there or not. They are there to fulfill their purpose on the earth. Its almost as if they are saying “God put us here many eons ago to do this – we are bringing life to this river – who are you and what are you bringing?” Hopefully they understood our guide each time we would release one of the fish we caught as he said “Now go make babies.”
Not long after we start fishing, a bear emerges from the pines about 150 yards away. He is a black bear about 400-500 pounds. Our guide says he is “medium.” I advise him I am quite content with medium and do not need to see “large.” He lumbers towards the water closest to him, which is in our general direction. We watch him warily as he disappears below a small berm. It is not long until we see him again, headed back to the pines after having had a salmon breakfast. A mother bear and her cub come to the water on the other side of us and much closer. They linger only for seconds before walking directly away from us and up the river looking for a more private dining area.
And so it was the rest of the week with wildlife. Seals hanging out on icebergs eating fresh fish. Mountain goats grazing on grass 2,000 feet up the side of a sheer cliff that dropped straight into the sea. Whales rhythmically bobbing in and out of the water as they traveled. Birds gliding effortlessly high over the water as if they could stay aloft forever. Life was everywhere. You sensed that you were in one of the most pristine places in the world, and that each animal around you knew that fact and had known it for ages. And that they were smiling at you like you were a small child that had just discovered that awesome news. And that if they could speak they would say “Shhhh, don’t tell anybody.”
Southern Alaska, while brimming with life, is brutally rugged. Waters are bounded by rocky mountains that drop precipitously into the sea. Some mountains are completely covered in pines while others are completely bare. In many areas fog is present in the mornings, mostly burns off throughout the day, then slowly begins to gather again in the evenings. This serves to give the entire place an almost medieval feel.
Fog as we exit Tracy Arm
Tracy Arm is a fjord about 45 miles south of Juneau. As our ship enters the fjord we are immediately overshadowed by scaling mountain walls that are a few thousand feet high. As you examine the rock walls you can clearly see numerous scrapes, cuts, and scratches, as if some huge being long ago had taken an implement and carved the marks into the rock. But this is the work of no living being.
As we slowly and steadily travel to the back of the fjord, there are constant reminders of the glacier’s awesome power. Anything a man could do to a mountain would be paltry and cheap in comparison. Time is on the glacier’s side. And it takes thousands of years of slow and steady progress to create the massive landscape changes that exist today. During the last Ice Age the glaciers methodically marched southward, as far as Nebraska and Missouri. As they moved, they shaped each and every piece of rock and dirt in their path. Over the past several thousand years the glaciers have been retreating to the colder nether regions of the north. The remaining glaciers, while still massive, are only shadows of their former selves. But their handiwork is all around, both beautiful and awe inspiring.
A runoff near Sawyer Glacier
The icebergs increase in number and size as we wind for miles to the back of the fjord. We finally arrive at the back of the fjord and there we meet the architect – Sawyer Glacier. The glacier is white at the top with snow that is of an unknown age, and dusted with brown from various bits of debris. The lower part of the glacier is a brilliant turquoise blue that appears alien to all that is around it. The blue color is a result of the compaction of snow and ice through the centuries. The compaction makes the ice so dense that every other color in the spectrum is absorbed except blue. Even some of the bergs have this deep blue color.
South Sawyer Glacier
Huge crevices are evident throughout the glacier, and although it is still some distance away, they are clearly hundreds of feet deep. Ice that has fallen off the glacier has coalesced in the small bay immediately below thereby creating a makeshift ice field. Seals lounge there and watch us lazily as the captain expertly rotates the ship 180 degrees to take us back out to sea.
(to be continued…)