Four thousand people are on a large 18-story boat making its way through the Tracy Arm Fjord with glacier-carved rock walls four thousand feet high and another two thousand feet deep under the waterline. The water cascading from the very tops down the narrow crevices is fast and cold but it’s not entirely clean. This is the melt from up top and the glacier that moved through here 15,000 years ago left behind a lot of crushed stone. You can’t break a mountain without crushing some rock. Some of the residue is so fine that it’s called “rock flour”. You could see a handful of it sitting next to the flour you buy at the store and not be able to tell the difference by feel.
When we travel through these vast territories where even this huge boat is just a blip compared to the massive tree-controlled landscape around us, I think of those folks who think the world will end if we don’t all plant just one more tree. People can be such vain fools.
The air on deck is 46 degrees and the water below is 38 degrees. If you fell overboard, you’d die the most common death (aside from a natural one) in this area. Within 20 minutes, your core temperature would fail you. There is a story of a native woman whose canoe flipped over during a storm. She was rescued one hour and 48 minutes later, still alive. She was four feet eleven inches tall and weighed 280 lbs. I can only suppose that this is what is on some of our fellow passengers’ minds as they spend most of their time onboard this vessel at the buffet which seems to never close. The folks who work on the ship seem to be from places such as Russia, Australia, South America and other non-USA locales. The two things they have in common? They are all thin and they all look at the obese contingent of our paid travelers with the same look made up of fairly equal parts pity, subservience and disgust.
The massive work of the glacier is almost too much to take in. That is probably why I’m attracted to the smaller things, such as the hemlock and scrub firs which manage to grow right out of the side of a sheer rock wall. I imagine the first trees being up at the flatland on top on the cliffs, shedding seeds each year like a Parkinson's patient with a bag of candy corn. An unlikely seed takes purchase a few feet down in a small opening. Roots dig in and begin the formation of a new line, holding more and more seeds from above. The process repeats itself down the steep cliff walls like the advancement of a slow motion army, all the way to the water line. If I’m wrong about the process at work here, don’t tell me. I like this scenario and it’ll be the truth for me, if you’ll let me keep it.
It’s August and the wildflowers are no longer in bloom. Had we been here in July, we could have seen the thousand or so varieties of flowers which are pollinated by hummingbirds which flew 3000 miles all the way from Mexico just to make sure there was some vivid color this far north. Some folks wonder how such a tiny bird could fly that far for such a short-lived chore. How could they fight the wind currents and get enough nourishment? The natives believed that they hitchhiked on backs of larger birds such as eagles. This is not true, but if it is their truth, I am happy to let them keep it.
I can live without the wildflowers. I have plenty of those back home. The muted tones of the scrub brush and round lichen is just fine with me. There is always the Windex blue of the icebergs if you want to look at the ostentatious part of the color spectrum.
We began by flying into Seattle and spending a couple of nights downtown; a downtown which was a lot more hilly than I’d imagined. I’d have to give Seattle a positive review. Never having been there before, I’d say it’s a clean city which seemed fairly safe and friendly enough. We caught a band called the “Paperboys” playing live in a downtown square on a weekday during lunchtime. We had some excellent seafood at a place called Elliots down in the Pike’s Market area. Among the buskers was a fellow playing guitar and singing along with his partner, an accordion player. Even though he was bearded, I do not think it was Pseudo_Intellectual. He was thin and he was not trying to tell me how to become a better tourist.
Leaving Seattle, we boarded this behemoth of a boat and sailed to Juneau. This is the capitol of the state and, of course, all the residents had their own Sarah Palin joke. I could see why she wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time in Juneau. It had an air of Mad Max desperation about it. The homeless shelter and the Salvation Army store looked to be the most popular spots. There was a Wal-Mart outside of town. The locals spoke of it with derision. I didn’t bother to ask them where they bought their toilet paper and televisions. I already knew.
The rain was incessant and it made the trip to the Mendenhall glacier less enjoyable than it could have been. It did make the spawning salmon in the streams look right at home. The rainy weather and the low clouds caused the more adventurous tours to be cancelled; the helicopter rides and the dog-sledding on the high ice. So the already cheesy glacier museum/viewing station was overcrowded and the little theater was SRO for the park ranger lady to remind us that little 15-minute film we were going to watch about the forces of nature was hopelessly out of date since it was made ten years ago. They weren’t trying to scare the shit out of everyone with Global Warming then, so it fell on her shoulders to update the film and remind us that we should immediately start pissing in the shower and driving a Prius. I quickly calculated that since I’d been pissing in the shower since I could remember, that probably gave me enough Bonus Points that I could still drive whatever the hell I wanted to for the rest of my life. If folks like her will let me.
The next stop was Skagway, a small town of only a thousand permanent residents. It seemed cleaner and happier than did Juneau. It also seemed that many more than a thousand folks must live here. Then, when you speak to them, you discover that they all move here to work for the summer and then go back home afterwards. I did not meet one permanent resident.
This is where we did the one thing that I would suggest you do not miss if you ever are in Skagway, Alaska. Pay whatever it costs (and it’s really not a lot, compared to some of the other tours available) to take the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway ride 27 miles up the winding sides of the cliffs to Fraser, British Columbia, and back. Normally, I would be reluctant to take a ride that exposed you to such precarious heights and sheer drop-offs, but the majesty of it shook the fear right out of me. I was even on the back of the caboose rocking and reeling down the mountainside on the way back, holding on with one hand only.
It took 30,000 men to build this railway back during the days of the gold rush and only 300 or so died doing so. That, to me, was miraculous. You can see both the new pathways above you, namely the modern highway with its 18-wheelers and Winnebagos, as well as the original trail below you. This is the trail which the stampeders, as they call them, traveled to find the gold that never existed in Skagway. I can only imagine their disappointment after all the impossible travel to get here. The local graveyard has a small plot for the town villain, the ubiquitous Swearengen character from Deadwood who was called “Soapy” Smith here in Skagway, as well as the larger and more decorated gravesite for the brave townsman who finally killed him in a fair duel that led to a fatal wound for him, as well. Up until that time, Mr. Smith and his gang of thugs had “caused a lot of mischief” in Skagway. Those were the tour guide’s words and I can only assume they are quite watered down for family consumption. I have been around demons and their gangs, and “mischief” is not quite an accurate description.
Down below the graveyard, winding through the whole flatland to the fjord where the big boat is docked, is a stream where huge salmon are flopping all over each other, just like the cruisers back at the buffet lines, making their way upstream to do their business. Some lay dead along the side of the stream, and one could only imagine that the same would be true in the buffet lines if Homeland Security and the cruise line’s diligence didn’t make sure there were no handguns on board.
This is the second cruise I've ever been on, and the first was fifteen years ago. This one is the Golden Princess -- the original Love Boat with the famous Lido deck -- and that one years earlier was Royal Caribbean. I think the difference in companies makes a difference, but I also think that cruises have changed a lot in fifteen years. Back then, all meals were at a specific time with a designated seating arrangement and a designated server. You got dressed up to dine. The food was, without fail, excellent. The food server and the cabin steward were both sticklers for the details that matter. Tips for these folks were awarded at the end of the journey and tended to be quite lavish. That was Royal Caribbean fifteen years ago.
Princess cruises today assess a gratuity surcharge per occupant to your cabin each day. ($10.50 USD on this trip. You, of course, can tip specific folks more, and we did tip the cabin steward quite well for his hard work. No one else on board really deserved more than the assessed gratuity.) For dining, you have the option of eating at specific times with the above-described arrangement, but most folks seem to prefer the "anytime dining" which means "buffet open all hours" and you can dress like the slob you really are. We tried a little bit of both and the assessment could not have been any clearer. As I said, I'm not sure if it's the era or the company, but the food on this cruise was plentiful and quite ordinary. I would even call it below par. Everyone we discussed this with seemed to agree. I wondered if perhaps the luxury of the Princess boat was so expensive that this is where they had to cut costs in order to be competitive. Regardless, if you are thinking of booking a cruise these days, I'd go with one of the more expensive companies without the "anytime dining" option if I was looking for quality food. However, if you're just looking for food'a'plenty and want to dress like the slob you are, Princess is your ticket to gaining at least fifteen pounds in 7 days.
After leaving Skagway, the captain took us through the Tracy Arm Fjord with our on-board narrator offering the first words of wisdom I’ve heard about “climate change” since we’ve been here. He states that no matter what you believe, you should keep in mind that 4 million years ago there were tropical swamps and alligators right here in this frozen inlet and not a hint of man yet born on this planet. I am so refreshed to finally hear some common sense from a sensible man, a naturalist even. I’m about up to my chin with bus drivers and museum clerks telling me they know more about climate science than I do.
The train ride in Skagway is one must-see. The other is this fjord if the situation is such that you can cruise all the way to the Sawyer Glacier itself. I understand that sometimes this is not possible. The cruise staff warn you not to feed the wildlife and give you all the reasons why it’s a bad idea, and at first you’re a bit disappointed that you are probably not going to see any wildlife. There are tracks of bears and nests of eagles and white rocks that might be goats and tales of whales, but in the end there was really no need to buy those expensive binoculars. No, what you really need to do is just park yourself somewhere quiet – like on the balcony of your stateroom – and just watch for about four hours as you sail into and then out of this majestic wilderness. The sheer rock faces with the impossible vegetation and the snow capped peaks offer up the long, long waterfalls and that should be enough to quiet you down and give you a dose of what you need. Humility. You think your little pitiful actions change this planet in any meaningful way? Get a grip on yourself.
The naturalist who is offering sparse but poetic narration of this trip refers to the glacier at the apex of the journey as The Creator of this miracle. There’s a religion I can buy in to.
We stopped for a short time in Ketchikan which seems to be a small town specializing in jewelry stores and the cheapest diamonds on the planet. Fellows, let me give you a hint here. If you come out of the shower on the boat docked in Ketchikan and find your woman watching a channel on the cruise-operated TV offering advice on buying diamonds . . . And if it is some sort of eventful time in your life, like a major anniversary . . . And she is fairly adamant that you go "shopping" with her in Ketchikan . . . And the first place she goes into is a store that you remember from the TV that morning . . . And your woman is not a spendthrift by nature . . . And she picks out a diamond ring and says, "What do you think?" . . . Here is my advice: Buy her the ring right then and there. Do it with a smile on your face and tell she deserves one that costs twice as much. Do not freak out and start blaming her for dragging you down to this store under false pretenses. You're going to wind up buying that ring one way or the other, some place or another, and you will save yourself a whole lot of time and aggravation and potential relationship disaster if you realize this from the time you walk out of that shower. You're welcome.
The next night we spent a few hours in Victoria, British Columbia. There was not enough time to do it justice, but again I'd have to give the place high marks based on my brief stay. The climate was lovely. The landscaping and specialty gardens were outstanding. Downtown looked clean and interesting, especially Chinatown. I wish we'd had more time to spend there, and if I had one city we visited where I'd consider going back to spend a week or so, it would be Victoria.
Taking a vacation on a cruise boat is not one of my favorite things to do. The boat is fine, the service is good, the food is plenty, the scenery when you get somewhere is often spectacular; but the folks who tend to show up on these cruise boats are usually not the sorts of folks I’d choose to hang out with. You often find yourself dining with strangers, sharing the same stories over and over again. “Is this your first cruise?” “Where are you from?” Etc. You find yourself wondering why so many of these folks seem to spend so much of their time on these large boats. And then it becomes clear when, after a couple of bottles of wine at dinner one evening, an older fellow puts it to you this way. “When you consider the cost of housing, dining, housekeeping, and the rest, it is actually cheaper to spend time on these boats than it would be to pay for a nursing home.”