Alaska is a vast land full of giant Rocky Mountains, vast snow covered landscapes, immense glaciers, fjords and a very rich animal life. My wife and I got to see, appreciate and enjoy the natural bounties of this magnificent place during past June( Summer of 2005), when we took an eight day cruise from Vancouver, Canada. This cruise traversed the interior passage from Vancouver and stopped in places like Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Glacier National Park. At each place we got a chance to take some excellent land tours to see the special attractions.
This sea route stretches from Seattle, Washington State, USA to Skagway, Alaska and covers approximately 1000 miles. ?Inside? means ?protected?; millions of years ago, the moving glaciers carved out the canyons and fjords and created the waterways that is surrounded by vast stretches of mountains on both sides. As a result the waterways are protected and generally the water is calm, which makes smooth sailing. In the picture below, we are at Tracy Arm glacier. When we reached there it was early morning. The air was cool and crisp and the sky was blue and open and the scenery was simply breathtaking.
Glaciers are moving rivers if ice. Glaciers are created when more snow falls each winter than melts in the following summer. The accumulation goes on for thousands and thousands of years and the bottom layer gets compressed and forms ice through crystallization. Due to the heavy weight of hundreds of feet of ice and snow above, the bottom layers slowly start creeping forward and eventually break off or calve into the water ways, It is quite a sight to see this phenomena, specially in Glacier National Park, where the ship comes face to face (at a safe distance), with ice/snow cliffs over 100 feet tall. They creak, crackle, break and tumble into the water with thunderous explosions. The glacier fields are many hundreds of mile long and many miles wide. Another beautiful sight is the bluish color of the icebergs.
Glacier ice is highly condensed and concentrated and absorbs all colors in the light spectrum except blue which is reflected back. That is what makes it blue (so the phrase “glacier blue”).
Glacier Bay National Park is a spectacular Park, surrounded on all sides by major Glaciers except the water way or the passage way that was carved out by the moving glaciers, which makes the cruise ships and other boats go to the middle of it all. The bay is about 65 miles long and anywhere from 2 to 10 miles wide. Only about 200 years ago, the ice was 5000 feet thick. The park includes 12 active tide water glaciers that calve into the bay on a regular basis. It is pin drop silence in the ship, while every one is anxiously waiting for a major ice cliff to break and thunder down into the water.
There is an enormous amount of sea life in this area. Lots of sea lions, seals, porpoises as well as Whales. Close to this Park, the bay narrows and we got a good chance to see many humpback whales close to the ship including a huge one totally coming off the water (breaching) and thumping back with lots of splash.
Seals on iceberg – about 20 or so seals on an iceberg (middle, left side of the picture), this is a common sight. It may be hard to see in this small size. Whales were fun and awesome to watch, but getting good pictures from the ship is very difficult (for amateur photographers).
Juneau is the capital of Alaska. The only way to reach Juneau is by plane or ship. As it is surrounded on all sides by snowcapped mountains, there are no roads to Juneau. While in Juneau, we visited the Mendenhall glacier, Glacier gardens and rainforests and also a Salmon hatchery.
Mendenhall glacier is a blue river of ice, approx. 13 miles long and is fed by the 1,500 square mile Juneau ice field.
Glacier gardens in Juneau is a lush rain forest with beautiful flower gardens. Here flowers are grown on top of the trunk of the trees; dead trees have been planted inverted with the trunk on top and by spreading some kind of netting and filling it with soils, flowering plants are grown.
You are looking up at the garden from the ground. The weather in summer is fairly temperate and the long days of sunlight provide good conditions for gardening.
Below is view of the Juneau bay from top of the glacier gardens.
Alaska is known for it?s salmon and salmon fishing. The bears love to catch and feed on salmons. The life cycle of salmon is very interesting. When we visited the salmon hatchery, we got to know some amazing facts. The concrete ramp in the picture below is actually a water channel, where the water is flowing down. Salmons swim upstream before hatching. Salmon has to come to fresh water for spawning. After they spawn (lay eggs), most Salmon die within a week. In the hatchery that we visited, more than 100 million eggs are hatched annually. After several months, baby salmons are released to the bay and slowly they make their way into the ocean. There they spend (the ones that are not caught by fishing) about two to seven years. Then it is time for reverse migration; journey back to the motherland, before laying eggs and dying. They go to the same area/place where they were born. It is one of the mysteries of nature that they find their way in the vast ocean to return to the original place. One of the theory is that the Unique smell of the particular fresh water, saltwater mix of their birthplace get embedded in their brains and becomes their compass to find the place back! Wow…!
Skagway became famous during the Klondike gold rush days of 1897-1898. When newspapers pubished the news that miners in Dawson city, Canada have found gold, a stampede started immediately. Supposedly thousands and thousands of reasonable men lost their senses in the rush to strike rich quick and sold everything they have for the trip to Dawson city. They came by boats to Skagway, hoping to speed up their journey. Least did they know of the treacherous mountain routes, heavy snowy, icy winters and the lack of any facilities for travel.. More than half the people died enroute. The ones who finally reached Dawson city, found out that the mines were already staked by the people there. The only people who made money of the gold rush days were the unscrupulous business people in Skagway and enroute, who swindled everything that the gold rushers had. Whitepass & Yukon Rail road was built during those days to provide easier transport. But by the time the railroad was built, the gold rush had already ended.
However, this is a very scenic mountain railroad, considered in some counts as one of the six best in the world. The narrow ?gauge train goes across mountain rivers and deep gorges and along sheer cliffs. In the picture below, on the right side, you may be able to see the walking path where the gold rush men rode their mules and when the mules died, walked practically bare feet This side trip takes anywhere from three to six hours depending on the tour selection.
Ketchikan is the southern most city in Alaska and is largely settled by Native American Indians. This is the wettest city in North America getting an average annual rainfall of 156 to 162 inches. This city is also known as the salmon capital of the world. The Indian clans who live here are primarily Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. The art of Totem pole carving originated with these tribes. Totem poles are tall cedar logs carved with eagles, ravens, bears and whales telling certain stories or representing particular clans. You can watch totem pole carving by the Native Indians. Ketchikan is considered to have the most totem poles in the world.
From Ketchikan, it was smooth sailing back to Vancouver. Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities in the North American continent and a great place to start and end our Alaskan cruise.
Useful travel information:
If you are interested in travelling in Alaska or knowing more about this wonderful land, the following website will be very helpful and enjoyable.
About The Author
Author: J. M. Bhandary- USA