DISENCHANTMENT BAY, ALASKA - There’s many reasons people take an Alaskan cruise - a chance to see the state’s natural beauty up close while witnessing whales, bald eagles and wildlife playing in their natural habitat are a few.
But the main reason they come this far is to see the slowly evaporating Hubbard Glacier, that massive piece of sapphire coloured ice that stretches 120 kilometers between two countries (Canada and the United States) before breaking apart in this crescent-shaped bay.
We know we’re getting close to the natural behemoth because the chunks of ice floating beside our Royal Caribbean cruise ship are much larger – they have not had the chance to dissolve in the salty water after breaking off from the slow moving ice giant.
As the ship inches closer to Hubbard, loud claps of thunder can be heard in the distance. As the glacier breaks apart, it creates a thunderous commotion that is heard miles away. Glaciers, by the way, are a disappearing wonder in Alaska. While they once covered almost 50 per cent of the state, now less than 5 per cent of this magnificent landscape is wrapped in blue ice.
Even though the glacier stands 90 metres high and 10 kilometres wide, we still cannot see it. Passengers crowd on deck hoping the river of ice will soon come into view but a thick fog has descended on the bay.
The captain announces through the P.A. system that he can only maneuver his mighty ship to within two kilometers of the glacier because the water around it, churned up a week earlier when fresh water that had built up behind Hubbard burst through at a rate of seven million litres per second, has made navigating here too unsettling. We can barely see two feet in front of the ship, let alone two kilometers.
The passengers quickly come to the realization that the thick veil of fog will hide Hubbard from us on this voyage. Are they disappointed? Of course. But there has been too many wonderful moments on this voyage of discovery to allow this to ruin the trip.
Left: Ships slip into Disenchantment Bay and on a clear day the glacier experience is breathtaking. Right: The wildlife one sees on an Alaskan cruise is simply wonderful.
Besides, as one man jokingly tells fellow passengers: “I think I’m out of film, anyway.” There has been much to photograph on this seven day, 4,000 kilometer cruise that started in Vancouver:
- Killer and humpback whales gliding through icy waters;
- Hundreds of Bald Eagles perched high in pencil straight pine tree sizing up their prey;
- An army of harbor seals performing for the tourists in the choppy waters off a place called Scull Island;
- Bears hunting for salmon in the streams that flow into the sea around Juneau;
- A trip back in time aboard a steam train that starts in the United States and ends in Canada;
- Visits to Klondike towns and mining camps where time has stood still;
- Performances by brawny lumberjacks who turn mighty logs into toothpicks in a matter of minutes.
The Alaskan cruise has become one of the most popular offered by lines. And that’s especially true with families. The seven-day voyage allows kids and parents to bond and share outdoor activities like hiking over glaciers, canoeing together on glacial waters and flying over the breathtaking landscape in helicopters. And onboard, they get a chance to eat and play together, something that is rare at home in this fast-paced world.
The waters leading to Alaska from Vancouver and Seattle – the main boarding points for this cruise – are thick with ships. Every major line now offers an Alaskan voyage and most are sold out. Some people combine it with a rail trip through the Canadian Rockies and all agree it’s their “trip of a lifetime.”
A day after setting sail from Vancouver, Alaska reveals herself to us. She is indeed a natural beauty!
Above: Ships are forced to navigate through tight passanges and around mini icebergs.
Her rugged mountain backdrop and lush rain forests are the sweetest eye candy we’ve ever enjoyed. Elderly passengers huddle on deck snapping photos while younger members of the voyage are busy taking advantage of the ship’s many activities – rock climbing and mini-putt being their favorites.
Soon the state’s capital comes into view. Juneau’s skyline is highlighted by a collection of bland government office buildings. Not very appealing. Its main street looks like a midway – lots of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. The cruise passengers and their money provide a good living for the folks living here.
Many passengers elect to board a much smaller boat here and head out in search of whales in Gastineau Channel. The whales are not always easy to spot but there’s many other wonders to see. Like the white heads of the Bald Eagles standing out against the rain forest’s lush green backdrop. A crew member tells the passengers the eagles, America’s national symbol, are fierce hunters and can spot prey two kilometers away from their lofty perch. After sizing up their meal, the mighty birds, of which there are about 30,000 in Alaska, dive bomb their victims at speeds of 160 kilometers per hour.
"The only way you won't see an eagle in Alaska is if you keep your head down the whole time you are here," the crewmember tells her audience.
The passengers are getting anxious – they’ve been on the boat for over an hour, but still no whale sightings. The crew keeps their attention by pointing to Scull Island, where, on cue, a community of harbor seals leaps from their rocky nests into the choppy waters and perform flips and tricks for the appreciative tourists. The reason it’s called Scull Island is because two brothers were murdered here during the gold rush days.
Finally, someone shouts: “There they are – over there!”
A pod of humpback whales is spotted in the tranquil waters of Stephens Passage and the boat lists to one side as passengers and crew rush to get a look. The sight of the handsome beasts slowly swimming in the secluded waters brings some passengers to tears.
“This is what I wanted to see. This is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed,” says one elderly woman who gasps with delight as a mother whale is joined by her much smaller offspring (calf). That in itself is a rare sight because humpbacks only stay with their young for about a year and this calf looks older. The reason why whales are so hard to spot here is because they have such a wide range of water in Alaska in which to swim.
The passengers are hungry by the time they return to Juneau’s busy harbor, where sea planes touch down with other passengers who elected to fly over nearby glaciers instead of going whale watching. The sight of fishermen unloading freshly caught halibut directly into restaurant kitchens prompts some to grab a bit of lunch before returning to the ship. They also make time to explore local landmarks, mostly bars, made famous during the gold rush years. Some bars are as seedy as they were back then but most have been cleaned up for the tourists.
Skagway, where it rains 300 days of the year, is the next port of call. We’re lucky – it’s not raining and the town’s handsome main street invites us to explore.
First stop is the town’s museum where we learn about some of Skagway’s legendary characters, like Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, who was gunned down by local hero Frank Reid. Their gunfight on Skagway’s main street is all part of the town’s folklore.
One of the most exciting excursions on any Alaskan cruise is the train trip from Skagway to Fraser, British Columbia, aboard the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. If you only have enough money for one day excursion during your cruise, make sure it’s this one.
The trip is one of the most fascinating you’ll ever take. The vintage steam engine and cars used snake through rugged terrain along a slim ribbon of rail that clings precariously to rocky cliffs. More daring passengers elect to stand on the open platforms between the cars but those with a fear of heights are advised against it. There are points along the journey when the track bed disappears and you are left looking straight down at endless canyons. Very scary stuff!
But just think what this trip was like back in the late 1800s, when the line was constructed so prospectors could reach the Yukon’s plentiful gold deposits. There are reminders of those early days all along the route. Like at Black Cross Rock, where a blasting accident buried two miners and Dead Horse Gulch, where 3,000 pack animals lost their lives when they tumbled off a narrow ledge into the canyon’s abyss.
There are many beautiful sights as well, like Bridal Veil Falls, which cascades down the mountain into the forest. The 200-metre-long tunnel the train disappears into is also a highlight. You can actually touch the tunnel’s black walls as the train squeezes through.
The tiny train huffs and puffs its way into Canada at White Pass Summit, which sits 875 meters above sea level. The passengers disembark at the small station in Fraser a little further down the line before being bussed back to the ship.
The train trip was the topic of conversation aboard ship as the Royal Caribbean beauty sailed towards its final Alaskan port of call, Ketchikan, the rugged outback town that hasn’t changed much from those early Klondike days.
This is where passengers are treated to a lumberjack competition between Canadian and American competitors – yes, these folks actually compete on a circuit and their shows are featured on several cable networks. Ketchikan also features a replica of a turn of the century mining town where guides tell scary tales about the past. Many of the town’s gift shops showcase works by Native American artists and sculptors and it’s hard to leave Ketchikan without one of their beautiful creations.
The return trip to Vancouver is no less exciting. The ship cuts through British Columbia’s beautiful inside passage and exposes the Canadian province’s natural beauty, which rivals neighboring Alaska’s in many ways.
As the slip sails under Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge, some passengers do express disappointment – disappointment the trip was coming to an end!
As mentioned earlier, most mainstream cruise lines and a few smaller, specialty ones, offer Alaska voyages. For more information and details about Royal Caribbean's Alaska cruises, go to www.royalcaribbean.com