Cruising through waters to the land of coldest, longest winter and shortest summer
Alaska is a land of superlatives. The largest state in the United States of America, even bigger than Texas. So, Texans have to comfort themselves as residents of the largest state within the contiguous 48 states. Coldest, Northernmost state, with the longest nights and winters and shortest summers are also apt descriptors. It is also one of the most vulnerable.
The state is also relatively inaccessible with few roads or airports and insufficient ferry services. Yes, a cruise was the way to go. The planned cruise to Alaska was all we talked about for months. Our group of family and friends was multigenerational and included 7 adults and 4 children below ten years and a grandmother over seventy. Could we make this work?
We sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia on a balmy day in July 2019. The massive ship with a crew of over a thousand and over three thousand passengers was a small moving township, so stable on the waters of the Inner Passage that no one seemed to get seasick on the voyage. Every amenity was provided onboard -unlimited food and entertainment and activities for all ages. A special Indian vegetarian menu was a star attraction for Western vegans and Indian guests.
As the cruise ship pulled out, bright yellow mounds of sulfur a byproduct of the oil refineries contrasted with the clear blue sky. The weather was so congenial that guests wandered about in T-shirts on deck. The warm 70F degree temperatures induced guests to go swimming in the deck pools most afternoons. In the distance we could see whales and occasional schools of dolphin swim buy.
At our first stop in Ketchikan, I was surprised to see how vast and lush the rainforests of Alaska are. A steady diet of nature shows had led me to expect little patches of green in a vast snowy white environment. The melting snow and normally frequent rains feed the ecosystem all the way from the giant spruces to the long dense moss that festoons them, the colorful fungi that grow at their roots and everything in-between.
At a visit to the government run Salmon hatchery in Ketchikan, we watched a young black bear munching on sedges oblivious of the gawking humans. Even the preteens who are easily bored could not resist a young black bear peering at them. A family of otters streaked across the pond near the fishery. A belted kingfisher sitting on a railroad tie turned his head to ensure that we were not encroaching on his territory.
We learned that salmon were gathered in millions in the bay at the mouths of rivers. Because of low rainfall they could not leap upstream to spawn where they were born. Standing at the pier one could see them leaping into the air and falling back with an audible plop.
The salmon die after they spawn and those which are not eaten by the bears and other mammals decay to enrich the forests we saw around us. Of course, the biggest predator of salmon are humans. The fishing industry is the third most important one in Alaska harvesting 5-6 Billion, (that’s right with a B) pounds of fish and shellfish a year. Fishing tour guides and fish gear salesmen were doing a brisk business too. Our group too enjoyed fresh caught salmon at a local restaurant and an Alaskan king crab at another.
Icy Strait point
At Icy Strait point we walked along the bay to Hoonah, Alaska’s largest native village owned and operated by the native Tlingit population. The Huna Tlingit are the original people of Glacier Bay and have lived here for thousands of years. The population was severely depleted by exposure to small pox. Originally a cannery in the eighteen hundreds, the Icy Strait complex is now owned and operated by the native community as a tourist destination, a rare situation in Alaska just as in continental US.
The native culture is being painstakingly preserved here. The totem poles and traditional boat building methods are being revived and the younger generation are taught the language and culture. A master carver explained how the history of his family and his people are carved into the totems.
As we walked along the roads to Hoonah, a pair of bald eagles soared and landed on spruce tree-tops sometimes in pairs. Their aerial ballets enchanted us all. These majestic birds could be spotted high up in the trees at every site we berthed. Bald eagles have only recently recovered from DDT. To see them thrive was proof that we could save this planet if only we cared to do so. Pigeon guillemots in their black and white breeding plumage swam around showing off their blood red feet near the piers. These avian denizens of the arctic migrate to the warm waters of southern Alaska to breed. Their nests on the cliff sides were marked with white droppings dripping like sloppily applied white-wash.
When our ship docked at Skagway there were 5 other cruise ships that joined us. There were so many tourists that you could rarely see any year-round residents. Even the store owners and clerks were mostly out-of-state seasonal workers from all over the world. Population statistics tell the tale. Alaska’s resident population is less than a million mostly of European descent and nearly 15% native. One and a half to 2.25 million visitors arrive between May and September, and half of them arrive by cruise ship.
Tourism is the second largest private sector employer second only to fossil fuel extraction. We dutifully bought several souvenirs of our visit, of course all made in China. The year-round population of Juneau is about thirty thousand. On just that day we had doubled the population of the town. The impact of such massive influx of tourists is hard to ignore but the towns need the revenue. It is a Faustian bargain.
Skagway, Mendenhall glacier and rainforest walk
At Skagway, we hiked through a dense temperate rainforest part of the Tongass National forest to reach the Mendenhall glacier. The guide pointed out a marker indicating the extent of the glacier in 1916. Since then, the glacier had retreated more than 10 miles, and the forest had grown dense with moss hanging from the tree limbs. The forest looked enchanted like a scene from the Lord of the Rings.
No matter how many times one has seen a live whale you are still filled with awe. They are so large that you do not see all of them at once but see just parts. The arc of the hump with the blowhole here and the tail lifting there and a side fin over there. The experience was akin to my darshan of Padmanabhaswamy at Thiruvananthapuram several years ago.
If you are lucky to see a whale mother and her young, you are truly fortunate. Our boat stopped well beyond the hundred yards limit from a humpback and her young, following the strict rules of limited encounter enforced by US federal law. The tour boat companies followed the rules willingly because scaring away the pair from the safe waters would affect their bottom line. The mother and child dived for several minutes at a time, their tails making graceful arcs. The massive tails were encrusted with barnacles each individual recognizable by their distinctive patterns. When they resurfaced the spray from their blowholes created a fine mist above.
Passengers, alerted by on board announcements, rushed to the top deck to see the Hubbard glacier at eye level as the ship slowly approached the massive glacier. The Blue and granite gray streaked the glittering craggy white face of the glacier. Gray because of the crushed granite the ice relentlessly pushed forward. Blue due to the Raman effect of light diffraction.
Six miles wide and 350 ft tall the glacier ended its 75-mile journey into the tidal waters of Yakutat. You realized how massive the glacier was only when compared to the Zodiac boats that approached them for a closer look. The ice groaned and creaked and “calved” into the bay to the accompaniment of our collective gasps. The splash left a spume that remained aloft as if an underwater giant had coughed into the chilly air. The icy waters were filled with floes, small and fairly large reflecting the early morning light. Further from the ship were black dots which revealed themselves as harbor seals through my binoculars.
Our cruise ended at Seward, but our group had arranged for an additional week’s stay in a B&B within the national forest reserve near Anchorage. But first, a boat trip through the Kenai fjord awaited. We saw rookeries with thousands of gulls on the cliff sides, hundreds of harbor seals basking in the sun at the base. They waddled and jostled each other braying loudly enough so we could hear them above the boat’s engines. Puffins skimmed the waters gathering fish in their impossible beaks.
Moose wandered along the road within yards of our SUV as we sped toward our vacation home from Seward to Anchorage. They grazed placidly along the highway and on hilltops. Always by themselves. We did not see any herds.
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and in summer it is lush and beautiful. The temperature hit 90F during our stay. Due to an ongoing drought, we were spared the swarms of mosquitoes infamous in the region during the summer. The mosquitoes we did encounter were so large and fierce we called them “MOOSEquitoes”.
The visit to the dog sledding camp run by Dallas Seavey and his father, both Iditarod champions, was pure joy. The dogs are in training during the summer pulling sleds with tourists like us. They are astonishingly small for the incredible journey they have to run. They are bred for stamina and resistance to the cold harsh weather. A team of six dogs race in January in -50F temperatures in blinding blizzards with a full load of provisions and a racer. They are so friendly and their excitement and eagerness to run is contagious. We rode the sleds and even got to “mush” or control the dogs.
Flight to glaciers-rivers of ice and snow
The glaciers from the air were seemingly unmoving rivers of ice, tributaries merging to form larger flows. The experienced pilot took a nine of us from Talkeetna, expertly navigating the narrow spaces between tall sharp peaks. For those on board with vertigo the trip was nausea inducing. We landed on a relatively flat snowy surface only an expert could have found. We realized this as we walked and stumbled and fell into the knee-deep snow, laughing and screaming OMG. Yet it was unexpectedly warm, our parkas and mittens unnecessary.
Kids and adults frolicked alike, throwing handfuls of dry crystals at each other and stuffing our mouths with it. Shortly, the wind began to pick up and the pilot hurried us back because the weather changes can be sudden and devastating. The ice rivers marked their earlier margins on the hard rock higher up along the mountain’s edge, indelible evidence of shrinking glaciers and yes, climate change.
On our flight back we noticed large swaths of dead gray in the spruce forests below, the result of spruce beetle (Dendroctonusrufipennis) infestation. An estimated 1.3M acres of forest have been devastated since the most recent outbreak began in 2016. These native beetles are going through two lifecycles per year due to earlier springs and longer warmer summers. These dry diseased and dead trees fuel forest fires during the increasingly frequent hot summers.
The people we met were so hospitable and kind and proud to share their states’ wonders with us. The food, particularly the native fresh caught salmon and Alaskan king crab tasted better than anything we had tasted before. But fresh green produce was scarce. With a very short growing season, fresh produce has to be imported.
Alaska surprised us, delighted and awed us. Alaska also worried us. Were we exploiting this paradise by coming here to this vulnerable land? Are we hastening the exhaustion of this precious resource? As we continue to spew heat trapping gases into the atmosphere and pollute our oceans will we soon reach a point of no return? I hope my grandchildren can take their grandchildren to Alaska and enjoy its bounty. Whether they will see the sublime splendor or a damaged and devastated landscape, is up to us all.