Wrangell – the biggest little town in Alaska

Hands up if you knew Wrangell is the third-largest city in the US by land area (2,541 square miles), with a population of about 2,500 people.

We simply could not pass up on the opportunity to show you sunny Alaska photos.

Wrangell Sunday morning sunshine

We came north from Ketchikan and had a quiet day in Wrangell.  We walked up past totems and churches to Volunteer Park.  A gorgeous park, which is tended by Wrangell volunteers, so we expected to see see people out in the sunshine but in Volunteer Park we saw only bald eagles soaring overhead and at every green forested corner or boggy muskeg, we would shout out “Hey, Bear”. We did consider that we may have missed the ‘there are bears in Volunteer Park, give it a miss this weekend’ notice.  Every rustle in the woods would inspire us to chat away. We did not want to startle a bear.

Muskeg is an Alaskan bog, comprised of sphagnum moss and decomposing plant materials. Muskeg can hold up to 30 times its weight in water. The bog slows and captures spring floods and rain allowing the moisture to release slowly in drier conditions. Great country for beavers, but we didn’t see any. Only eagles and one little brown bird with a bit of red, that hid as soon as we appeared.

The Wrangell museum was splendid, one of our favorites. Considering the area Wrangell was in has been governed by four nations and three flags, the museum weaves through the artifacts left by Tlingit, Russian, English and US settlers. Wrangell was a major supply center for the Klondike Gold rush.

There were also Asian artifacts which show both Japanese and Chinese came looking for glory and riches.

Totems

One thing we loved about the town, was that everyone seemed to have a small green house in their yard, to start their vegetables before the ground was thawed.

We enjoyed Wrangell, Alaska’s Hidden Jewel.

Catching Up in Ketchikan

What a surprise! We strolled down the gangway and see Sandy, Sarah, Ric and David waving to us. They had been able to see the Sojourn docking and they came over to meet us.

Ric & Sandy in front of Uncruise

We went over to see their ship, the Uncruise which was much more of an expedition ship, smaller – only 76 passengers and with even more toys than the Sojourn. The Salts went to the ferry to make their connections to Denali and the four of us went to explore Ketchikan and find coffee.

Of all of the Alaskan towns James and I visited, Ketchikan was the one that looked like you could live there. Very hilly, so many of the houses had a view. Many kindly locals would say as you walk up the hill: “Make noise, there is a Mama Bear around”.

Creek Street, Ketchikan

 

It is no wonder the bears were nearby, because the salmon were running. We walked up to Creek Street and watched the salmon in their struggle to go upstream, with insistent interference from a friendly little harbour seal trying to catch his lunch.

We followed the road up the stream to watch the different varieties of salmon on their way to spawn. By the time the salmon are this far along they have shed their scales and soon arrive at the natal stream. Wikipedia says that salmon are a keystone species, as the nutrients in their carcasses are transferred from the ocean to both wildlife and riparian woodlands near the ocean. The female salmon searches for the gravel bed of her youth and uses her tail to create a depression, called a redd. She will lay up to 5000 eggs and then continue upstream before moving on to make another redd. This usually happens about seven times. After spawning, they quickly die and the owners of a house located on the stream say the putrid rotting fish smell lasts for about two months.

Salmon Run

Some males will develop humps, before they travel upstream. The hump attracts the sight of the bears, hoping to protect the females and the roe. They also develop teeth to fend off other salmon from trying to fertilise their eggs. You do see the males fighting in the streams. Some local children told me they were zombie salmon. Bears will eat salmon only before they lay their eggs.

We walked from the stream up to the Ketchikan Totem Heritage Center, with beautiful First Nation artifacts. The pre-19th century totem poles are one of the largest collections of unrestored totem poles, found at abandoned villages. They have other crafts on display like this ceremonial robe and new totem pole.

Ceremonial Robes – buttons and red colour indicate it was made after first contact.
Modern totem pole

Next stop, Wrangell.

 

South Sawyer Glacier, Tracey Arm

Noted California naturalist, John Muir, visited the South Sawyer Glacier in 1880. How did they visit these icy places before Gore-Tex? He camped on these boulders next to the iceberg.

The glacier was calving, giving our guide, Nikki, a few worries about her newbie kayakers, getting too close to a ‘growler’, or a rolling iceberg, which could take us with it. They are beautiful, often totally compressed to a color of deep blue.

 

Laying on the ice at South Sawyer Glacier and also plentiful in the water with us, are Harbour seals. Young seals in the water, heads bobbing up with a piercing look, then ducking away. On the glacier are dozens of Mama seals, with their newborns. The glaciers are so treacherous a terrain, the Mamas and babies are safe from predators. Wolves or bears won’t venture onto this erratic ice field.

Seals and Pups

Some of the icebergs are so big, they are like a hill that can almost hide a ship.

We paddled and played with the inquisitive seals.

South Sawyers Glacier

Haines, Skagway and a bit of Sitka

We woke with two thoughts: we are in Alaska and it is a blue-sky morning. Alaska lends itself to a feeling of rejoicing and buoyancy when you come into port and look out on a sweet town with blue skies to lighten up your day.

Haines

We had just crossed over the dock and the ferry from Skagway came in, so we ran right over and jumped aboard.

We were glad to get to Skagway and know we could get back in time to explore Haines. It seemed as if a quarter of Sojourn guests had left at 6:30am to take a ferry to meet up on the White Pass Summit Scenic Railway. The 100-year old train once took miners through the rugged North country on their way to the Klondike. We missed booking this narrow-gauge train and James has it firmly back on the bucket list, along with Denali.

We met a couple from Arkansas, who had driven to Haines and were taking the ferry to Skagway.  It is a 15-mile ferry ride but about 359 miles to drive it. We enjoyed the ferry ride there, we saw waterfalls and helicopters taking tourists out for scenic tours. Majestic is the only way to describe the landscape.

Skagway had at least four cruise ships in port, that added almost ten thousand people to the streets. There was a souvenir for every taste and possibly a beer for every taste too. I felt like I was in Disneyland and found myself looking for the fun-rides. We took our ferry back to Haines instead.

Skagway “the cruise ships are in town”

By the time we arrived back at Haines, it was raining. But we donned our waterproof jackets and set off for the museum. (No photo, just keep the sunny image of Haines in your mind.)

The little bit of Sitka is just because we saw a raft of otters. Really a group of otters is called a ‘raft’. Our otters had a raft of kelp and were incredibly cute and we just have to share.

A raft of Otters

Juneau and the Mendenhall Glacier

We had the best of excursions planned for Juneau, which was a tour by Skip at Gastineau Guides to take us to see whales, glaciers, bears and eagles.  Amazingly enough we saw all four and a waterfall.

A shuttle collected a group of us at the Sojourn, everyone with a camera in hand. Among other things, Skip is a photographer and a local cinematographer. The brilliant part of the tour was finding the animals and Skip’s passion for the local wildlife, which he caught from his local high-school biology teacher.  Both on the bus and the boat, he had still photos, prepared earlier, to show us what to look for and how to be careful. Alaska can be unforgiving.

One of the best photo tips, was how to be prepared to photograph the whale tale and we had practice with several whales being in the vicinity and learned to spot the hump they do before diving to the bottom to feed.

Whale Tail

It was raining when we got to the dock, but even before we boarded the boat, an eagle posed for us. Eagles mate for life and like the rest of us start off with a small nest and spend the next 20 years improving and renovating every year.  Their nests get bigger and bigger.  One winter a tree crashed down and with it the huge eagle’s nest.  What they found in the middle were several cat and dog collars. Not a great image for the majestic bald eagle.

Bald Eagle

After spotting whales in a few different spots in the harbor, we left the boat and we were back in the shuttle for the trip to Mendenhall Glacier. Mendenhall Glacier has been retreating since the mid 1700’s and as we walked into the park, we could see signs showing where the glacier was in 1910 and 1917 and so on. There is a torrential waterfall near the glacier, booming down the side of the hill, filling the lake with last year’s snow melt.

Mendenhall Glacier, Waterfall stage right

As we walked through the park we saw elderberries, fungi, mushrooms and bear scat. We also saw the remains of the bear’s salmon dinner. Skip advised us that Mama bear would have caught the salmon bit it’s head off for a favourite appetizer of brains and then eat the roe in the belly.  The cubs would need protein and they would get the rest of the salmon so they could build muscle.

We walked around the corner and we found Mama and two baby cubs, snoozing underneath a Spruce Tree. Even though we were making plenty of noise, Mama bear continued to sleep.  Skip explains this phenomenon – there are so many people in the park, male bears will stay away and she doesn’t have to worry about the safety of her cubs. Rather gruesomely, males might kill the cubs, so the female will come back into heat. With cubs, she is off the market for three to five years.

Mama Bear with Cubs, Alaskan Black Bear

There is a wonderful meadow lined with spruces and hemlocks and full of fireweed. You can see clouds and fog spilling down off the glacier and the hills. Just remember to call out ‘Hey Bear!’, so you don’t surprise them.

 

Change of Course

Originally, we were departing Seward and heading to Aialik and Holgate Glaciers, but the Captain said a front was moving in and we best try the less visited Hubbard Glacier instead. We sailed into Yakutat Bay, with the imposing Mount Saint Elias acting as a beacon, making it easy to find the bay.

 

From a distance of five miles you can see the glacier. It is imposing. The ice face of the glacier is six miles wide and 400 meters high. It is not far from the Malaspina Glacier, on the next headland.

Hubbard Glacier

We could hear massive cracks and groans, even when we didn’t see the actual calving. Ice would float out to the ship and you could see a dinghy sized piece of ice just beside the ship.

The next day found us anchored off Icy Strait Point and we went looking for Eagle’s nests and visiting the town of Hoonah. The industry here had been fishing with a handsome cannery, which has now been turned into a museum and gift shop.

Walking back from the town, we were almost at the cannery and an eagle swooped down from a tree and majestically flew over the beach.  Looking up into the trees we could see an immense nest and wonder if it belonged to our eagle. Eagles are important to the Tlingit people but I am not sure if this is an eagle or a raven. With the blue skies, the red school-house and the colourful totem poles really stood out.

Hoonah Elementary

 

Please note the blue skies, wish I had been fast enough to catch the eagle in flight.

Anchorage to Seward

Where to begin? Our DAR friend Gayle was talking to me for months about the Captain James Cook Society, a world-wide society who study Captain Cook and his travels. When we said we were coming to Anchorage, Gayle said she would be our tour guide.

Our first port of call was the statue of Captain Cook overlooking Resolution Park and the silted waters of Cook inlet.

Gayle and James

Followed by an informative tour at the Anchorage Museum, with erudite docent, Nancy Britton. If you can visit the Anchorage museum and have a tour with Nancy, your appreciation of Alaskan First Peoples’ live before and after First Contact will be greatly enhanced.

 

Literally at dawn the next day, we boarded the train to Seward.  We had booked the dome car, with 270 degree views and plenty of scope to go outside to see the verdant or frozen Alaskan landscape.  We passed several glaciers and learned that there are over 100,000 glaciers in Alaska. There are 616 officially named glaciers.

The photos of the lakes and icy water were taken from the inside of the train and are not photo-shopped. It is cold in Alaska but it isn’t windy like Sydney. The water of the lakes were perfectly flat and acted like a mirror.

Kenai Lake

Gayle took us to Sea Life in Seward and it was great to see puffins, otters and seals. The seals seem to interact with the children.

This beautiful seals seemed to react to the children

Thanks to all the lovely people in Anchorage and in Seward who showed us such wonderful hospitality. It was special.

 

Bora Bora

James and I last visited Tahiti and Bora Bora in 1985. We have to say it was romantic and if  you are looking for the most beautiful lagoon to set a Tiffany’s commercial, this would have to be it. The Aranui came into the lagoon off of Vaitape and anchored. We had a wet landing and disembarked to a motorised pirogue or canoe. Other passengers, went to swim with sharks and rays and others decided to take a truck tour around the island of Bora Bora.

Bora Bora’s Otemanu’s Peak hidden in clouds

The rain didn’t dampen us because we were under cover on the canoe but we missed some of the Tiffany blue water. The barge took us to visit the shallow lagoon, the sharks, rays and terns and then to a beach where you take a swim and a mudbath of coral shells. We also passed a turtle sanctuary and so many bures posted over the water.

Our guide was the very image of Disney’s demi-god, Moana, but was beautifully spoken in French and English.

That’s James in the yellow shirt and our guide driving.
Black tip reef shark, Bora Bora

Even though the sky was grey, the water is turquoise. No rays, though. These sharks seem used to humans but they will go for a shiny ring, so keep your fingers in the boat. (Davo, would you like to hop into the water? Me neither)

Pirogues
Ric and Sandy, sunny smiles in the rain

 

We went past the Le Meridien bures on the water but we didn’t see any turtles. Still we were glad to hear an International hotel is looking after the sea turtles. We went for the mud baths with the white coral mud, simply rejuvenating as you can see in the photo.

 

The sun started to peek out of the clouds and still on the canoe with Moana we went to a motu or small atoll, which belonged to his Ukele playing uncle.  We could have a swim, they gave us fruit and coconut in abundance and the best part would have to be the singing and ukele.

Bora Bora ukele and singing

These little motus are the Bora Bora half acre, just private and lovely. You need something from the shops, just take the pirogue.

Pirogue and white coral sand beaches

Back to the Aranui because our picnic on Motu Tapu, was rained out. Later we go pearl shopping and playing in Vaitape but we didn’t have enough time to visit Bloody Mary, which only opens in the evening.  But in the evening we consoled ourselves with mohitos and chichis and the Aranui took off for Papeete.

Aranui

 

 

 

Rangiroa, Islands and Pearl Farms

This morning we sail into Rangiroa. The island is brilliant and sunny. It is also my birthday. James and I meet Rick and Sandy on the bridge early to come into the Tuamotu and Rangiroa.

It had rained earlier and there was a rainbow. Then another rainbow appeared. As if nature wanted to be sure that I was at my happiest, dolphins came up to Aranui and said hello.

Frosty, I know you will need proof.

If you want a natural high, I suggest you start your birthday with a wonderful husband, rainbows and dolphins and good friends. Yes, I know the picture could be sharper but isn’t the water the most spectacular colour?

Rangiroa is the second largest coral atoll in the world. If climate change raises water levels, these motu will be submerged. Visually, you see blue and white dominate the landscape instead of the lush green volcanic islands of the Marquesas. To fully see Rangiroa, you need a drone or an airplane.

If we look at island formation, we see first an erupting volcano thrusting out of the ground and in time it is covered in trees and plants and birds. These are the Marquesas Islands. Over millennia, a volcanic island like Bora Bora will develop a ring of coral around its edge and begin to subside and erode. Instead of getting taller the mountains of the island will wear away. BoraBora is a subsiding volcano with a ring of coral creating its lagoon.

The third stage of this island making is a coral atoll, a subsided volcano, now enclosed in a coral reef. This is the stage the Tuamotu are in, sand bars on top of coral. Whether the coral attached to a submarine volcano or a subsided volcano there is no volcanic activity in known history.

Tuamotu

If you are coming for a vacation here, you will be happiest if you are a scuba diver or a pearl connoisseur. Speaking of pearls, we went to the pearl farm and discovered how they cultured the pearls in Rangiroa.

 

Black Pearl oyster

 

Unlike Australian Paspaley Pearls or Japanese cultured pearls, black pearls come in a range of colours, which is influenced by the insertion of a piece of mantle from a sacrificed oyster, into a tiny pouch on the accepting oyster. The mother of pearl of the shell above is quite silvery and you can see the pearl in the tiny pouch ready to be harvested. Pearls are used for three pearls and then their pearls lose their quality. Tahitian pearls are graded and cost ranges on quality.

Carefully adding a pearl nucleus to the pouch with a bit of mantle

First let me mention that we have it on the highest authority, that the best way to motivate your children to do well in high school and continue onto university, is to send them to work on a pearl farm. After six months or so, they will be begging to return to school.

Rangiroa has the white coral sands we expect to see if the South Pacific, beautiful beaches and spectacularly coloured water.

There was a small handicraft stall which had the loveliest hand painted pareus. They are made on the island and worth the extra you might pay for a pareu in Papeete.

Rangiroa

 

 

 

 

Retracing our steps to Nuku Hiva

In this part of our voyage, we are following in the path set by Captain James Cook in his second journey (1772-1774) navigating around a treacherous and moody Cape Horn towards the Marquesas Islands. He was a navigator extraordinaire, no GPS nor even a chart to follow. Some of his sailors felt they would possibly sail off the ends of the earth. He improved nutrition as well as insuring his men had a ration of beer each day, which probably kept their hydration up.

When we have sailed in the Pacific, many of the soundings noted on the charts were made by Captain Cook. Some of his journals are kept at the State Library Of NSW and you can request a viewing of these historic documents.

tiki

We are on our way back to Nuka Hiva to collect a container, now divested of it contents from Papeete and full of copra or bananas. You have to admire the efficiency of the crew of Aranui in getting the containers  on loaded so quickly. We have a bit of time and go into Taiohae to see some replica Tikis in the park.

Stone carving Taiohae

These tikis remind me of other prehistoric stones and instances of ancestor worship we have seen in Europe. It reminds me of sacred places the world over, where ancient man would use stone and sites to worship their ancestors or perhaps use them as a nemonic system. Wouldn’t it be great to ask them?

 

Replica – Cultural site Temehea

 

We repeat the loading exercise in Ua Pou and then we depart at 4:15 pm for the return 40 hour journey to the Tuamotu and the island of Rangiroa.

Marquesas Islands