our alaska summer vacation: the cruise
Alaska came up as a vacation idea last summer, during our day of travel home from Paris. We’d just spent nearly two weeks overseas, the first half in London and the second half in Paris. I was impressed with how well my vacation-averse husband fared during the trip and, feeling optimistic, I suggested that we begin thinking of our next summer vacation. Somewhere else in Europe, maybe? Ireland or Scotland?
“How about we stay in the US next summer?” he said. “We could look into Alaska.”
Knowing my husband as well as I do, I knew that he was imagining how much less expensive a domestic trip would be. I’m not quite sure why he thought Alaska would be less expensive than a European trip, but I chalked it up to the after effects of consuming a small country’s worth of wine, cheese, and pastries over the previous week in Paris.
I took his suggestion and ran with it.
Both of our parents had visited Alaska by cruise, and they all loved their experience. I felt relatively indifferent about an Alaskan cruise, but when I investigated how we could best tour the state, it seemed that a cruise made the most sense. I wanted to see the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park, and the most feasible way of doing so was by ship. I also wanted us to have the flexibility of touring on our own, though, so at the end of the cruise itinerary, we would plan to rent a car and explore on our own.
On July 2nd, we boarded our cruise ship – Holland America’s ms Noordam – at the port in Vancouver and soon departed for a north-bound trip up the Inside Passage, headed for Seward, Alaska.
After a full day of cruising, we awoke on the third morning of the cruise to our first port, Ketchikan. We spent the morning wandering around the town, exploring the shops along Creek Street, and generally wandering aimlessly. It was the 4th of July, and the town prepared for their annual parade, to be held around noon. We had other plans, though. A floatplane awaited us, and with Captain Randy at the helm, our family of four and another young couple were treated to amazing views of the waters and mountains surrounding Ketchikan. We flew through the Misty Fjords National Monument, admiring waterfalls, thick evergreen forests, winding waterways, and scattered islands. We landed on a lake somewhere in the middle of the wilderness and the silence and stillness of the place were incredible.
For the rest of our trip, Oliver talked about his strong need to own a floatplane one day.
The next day, we stopped in Juneau. Again, our booked excursion wasn’t until the afternoon, so we spent the morning exploring. We took a tram up Mt. Roberts to the Mountain House at about 1800 feet. Anxious to stretch our legs after being on the cruise ship, we hiked the easy Alpine Loop Trail and marveled at the views of the port of Juneau below. A pair of bald eagles soared overhead, flying to and from their nest nearby.
After lunch, we took a shuttle bus to the Juneau airport, our jumping off point for our next excursion: a helicopter trip to the Mendenhall Glacier to visit a sled dog facility. We donned our glacier boots, stowed our backpacks in the airport lockers, and were boarded onto a red helicopter. With our headsets on, the loud thwack-thwack-thwack of the helicopter’s blades was dulled but it was still challenging to talk to one another. We mostly rode in silence as the helicopter soared over snow-covered mountains to the glacier.
If it’s possible to tell whether dogs are happy by their barking and tail wagging, then these were the happiest dogs on earth. When hooked up to the sled, they leaped and lunged, anxious to start pulling. I think I expected them to be different, less happy maybe. It was a joy to watch, and riding in the sled was an exhilarating experience. We each took turns driving the sled, but I’m not sure any of us had as much fun as Oliver did. As if the entire experience wasn’t enough fun, we were able to cuddle with a litter of sled dog puppies before taking the helicopter back down to the Juneau airport.
Our final port was Skagway. Our excursion that day – the Glacier Point Wilderness Safari – was scheduled for first thing in the morning, so at 7:15, we were off the boat waiting on the rest of the group to show up. When we were all assembled, we boarded a high speed ferry boat the held about 20 or 25 people. We sped down the Lynn Canal and up the Chilkat Inlet toward the Davidson Glacier. We landed on a rocky beach where a couple of old school buses awaited the group. The school bus took us on a 10 minute ride through the forest to a gear shed where we were instructed to put on life jackets and heavy waterproof boots. After a 10 to 15 minute hike deeper in the forest, we finally ended up at the water’s edge. We all climbed into 10-person canoes, each with our own guide. Oliver was disappointed when the guide flipped on the small motor after only a short time paddling. I’m fairly certain he was the only one who felt this way.
The Davidson Glacier seemed so small from a distance, but as we neared it, I quickly realized that my perception of it was an optical illusion, completely wrong. It was massive. We weren’t allowed to walk right up to it due to a large crack that had appeared in the prior couple of weeks. The wind coming off of the glacier was astonishing, and I regretted not wearing earmuffs or a hat.
After some time at the glacier, we all climbed back into our canoes. As our guide was the most senior guide, we were last to leave, delayed a bit by another group who had to send someone back to the glacier to look for a lost cell phone. As we finally headed back, Maddie spotted something on the shoreline to our left, and then I saw what she saw: a black bear. Our guide, frustrated that we were already late, decided that a few more minutes wouldn’t matter, so he guided the boat nearer the shoreline. The black bear was a mother bear and a small black cub was at her side. It was such a gift to see.
The following day, our ship entered Glacier Bay National Park. Sam and I wanted to stay outside all day. We didn’t want to miss a thing. It didn’t matter that we’d seen glaciers before. We never tired of them, and despite glaciers sounding as if they all look the same, they don’t. Each is unique, and all are beautiful.
As we went deeper into Glacier Bay, closer to the Margerie Glacier and the Johns Hopkins Glacier, the more ice we saw floating in the water. In one area, we saw harbor seals floating on the chunks of ice in the water. Gulls perched on others. Seeing the glaciers up close, and seeing the evidence of their retreat, left us without appropriate words.
“This is amazing,” we said to each other, repeatedly.
“Amazing,” the other agreed.
When we woke up in Seward on our last day of the cruise, we were sad to leave the cruise ship. We all enjoyed it much more than any of us expected.
Our final cruise-related activity was a four-hour trip on the Alaska Railroad train from Seward to Anchorage. The feeling of melancholy I had at the cruise being over quickly dissipated as I watched out the window at the passing views of the Kenai Peninsula. More beautiful scenery and amazing experiences were still to come. We would rent a car in Anchorage and then the interior of Alaska was ours to explore.