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.
Some of the icebergs are so big, they are like a hill that can almost hide a ship.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Please note the blue skies, wish I had been fast enough to catch the eagle in flight.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to all the lovely people in Anchorage and in Seward who showed us such wonderful hospitality. It was special.