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Photo Diary - Alaska from aboard Holland America's ms Statendam

VANCOUVER

We flew direct from Chicago to Vancouver, where our cruise on the ms Statendam would depart from. Vancouver is such a beautiful city — of course, we were there on a beautiful day! It is very clean and well maintained. The people were very friendly and welcoming. The harbor view is something to behold with a ton of boat and plane activity set on a backdrop of gorgeous blue water and soaring mountains. The first photo below (1) is of the Olympic Cauldron from the 2010 Olympic games. There are parks and water features all over downtown, as we found on our stroll in the late afternoon before dinner with family at Cloud 9 Rotating Restaurant, looking out over English Bay and Vancouver Harbor (2). Millie is looking good at the first of many dinners to celebrate her 90th birthday!

After dinner we came back and headed to Cactus Club Cafe (3), a very “hip”, modern restaurant staffed and patronized by a fairly young crowd. I loved the feel of this restaurant and its ambient, loungey soundtrack, not to mention the awesome food (try the spicy halibut soft tacos). It was directly around the block from our Hotel (Hotel La Soleil) so it was a perfect spot to grab a few drinks before heading in for the night prior to our departure.

In the morning we packed up and walked just a few hundred yards down to the harbor (Port Metro Vancouver) with all of our luggage to board the ship. This was my first cruise, and upon boarding Holland America’s floating luxury hotel I knew I was in for a treat. The view of Vancouver from the ship’s deck was simply stunning (4) and we hadn’t even moved one inch. I couldn’t believe that in just a few hours we would be trekking northwest along the inside passage of Alaska — the views would only get better.

Our room on the ship (5) was great! It was much bigger than I had anticipated and was attended to several times per day. The bed was large and comfortable and there was ample room to move around and store luggage, etc. It wasn’t huge — it is a boat after all, but it far exceeded my expectations and was more than comfortable for a 7-day stay. We pulled away from Vancouver in the late afternoon (6, 7, 8 ) and a few hours later it was out of sight and we were on our way. Soon we were taking in the views of Vancouver Island (9) while making our way through the gorgeous but frigid waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound, where we picked up a few fellow travelers (10, 11).

The first full day of the trip ended with a “formal night” on the cruise, and after dinner we headed to “The Crow’s Nest” (12, 13) to have a few after-dinner drinks and take in the 360-degree panoramic views of the surrounding islands and the awesome sunset (14). This became our nightly routine for obvious reasons.

On to Ketchikan, Alaska.

KETCHIKAN

Our first port-of-call was Ketchikan, Alaska. We arrived VERY early in the morning (for me at least) and I pulled myself out of bed around 5:30 AM with a slight hangover in order to get some shots in the great early-morning sunlight (15, 16). The town was very small (actually, virtually non-existent coming from a native Chicagoan) but there were a good number of colorful houses dotting the shores of the boat harbor and the foothills of the mountains that surrounded. Quite the “sleepy little town” if you will. The boat docked in an area chock-full of very touristy stores and diamond dealers (why?) but once we wandered out of the immediate vicinity of the boat’s walkway (17) there were plenty of less “manufactured” sights and of course the endless, beautiful northwest Pacific scenery.

We had previously booked a Zipline excursion through Holland America for our stop in Ketchikan, at the Tongass National Forest (a Pacific temperate rainforest). Sounded fun, but I had no idea we were going to be 130 FEET above (18, 19) the forest floor until I got up to the first platform. As I let my 8 pound camera dangle from my shoulders with nothing but plastic clips separating it from the rocky stream below, I somehow silenced my inherent distrust of knots and mechanical safety gear and put my life in the hands of a 6-inch metal bracket as it rocketed me across the treetops directly at the trunk of another 200 foot tall Western Hemlock. Luckily they gave us construction gloves to slow ourselves down before impact. It turned out to be a very exhilarating experience and I would definitely do it again! Thanks to Alaska Canopy Adventures for hiring the best guides (Travis and Ashlyn) and for making us feel as safe as possible while at eye-level with eagles on their home turf.

After the Zipline we took the bus back to the ship to get ready for dinner at the Rotterdam Dining Room, where he had a standing 5:45 reservation every night. I won’t really go into too much detail, but the food here is just unbelievable. On a ship? I had no idea they were that serious. Master Chef Rudi Sodamin and the rest of the Holland America “Culinary Council” have put a lot of effort into the cuisine on these ships and it shows.

After dinner our nightly ritual took us back to The Crow’s Nest for a little “Name That Tune” (we won of course) and some karaoke. Lisa chose Britney Spears and was quickly upstaged by a 3-year old girl who knew all the words and had red lipstick all over her face (20). Classic.

 

JUNEAU

Juneau was the second stop on our trip. We decided to forgo any ship-sponsored excursions and go out halibut fishing with some relatives on their own small boat. After visiting the closest gas station to get the appropriate 1-day fishing licenses, we left the boat docks and looked back at the scene below (21). I knew right away we were going to be in for some terrific views.

As we ventured out further into Auke Bay the boats and buildings on the shore started to disappear and made way for more snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and trees (22). There were picturesque, postcard-quality vistas in every direction. After about 20 minutes of boat travel, we dropped some lines into the water and tried our luck on some halibut, but the wind and tide were not cooperating. As we pulled the our bait out of the water and started toward a new spot, in the distance we caught a glimpse of several humpback whales surfacing and blowing streams of water into the air. Ken, our host and boat captain, headed in the whale’s direction to see if we could get a closer look. It turned out fishing might not be the primary activity of the day.

Soon it seemed the boat was surrounded by whales. Humpback fins, tails, and even heads were popping out of the water in almost every direction. Being on a small, 7-person boat and having never seen a whale in real life, I was ecstatic and assembled the camera gear and started shooting (23, 24, 25). Over the course of about an hour, we must have seen 25-30 whales. How lucky! There is a law in Alaska that requires a boat’s motor to be turned off while within 100 feet of whales in open water. Our motor was turned off for easily 45 minutes straight — they were that close!

The day dedicated to fishing turned out to be a once in a lifetime whale-watching experience. I definitely wanted to get a few whale pictures at some point during the trip — this however was something I would never have expected and I was lucky to capture a lot of it on camera. It is definitely something I will never forget.

We started to head back soon after the whale show was over and Ken pointed out some brown blobs on a marker buoy.

“Don’t put your camera away yet” he said. “Those are sea lions!”

I was fulfilling my checklist of wildlife photos a lot faster than I had anticipated. We pulled closer to the buoy and the outlines of the brown “blobs” resolved themselves into somewhat more defined brown blobs. With tails. Don’t ask me how they got up there (high tide?) but there they were, lying lazily about, as if 10+ sea lions sleeping on a buoy with a bell in the middle wasn’t something worth taking a picture of (26). Every now and then one of them would flap a fin or a tail and smack the bell which gave us all a good laugh. My official analysis was complete: sea lions are lazy and only moderately cute.

We made our turn around the buoy and were headed back in the direction from which we came. Lisa and I decided to stay outside on the back of the boat to take it all in. Looking backwards, a large ship passed us going in the other direction. “TIME BANDIT” was stamped on the back. BONUS! Being a fan of Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch”, this was a big deal to me. There were no crab pots on deck, so I’m not sure where the boat was headed or what it was doing, but it didn’t matter — seeing the famous crab boat was the perfect ending to an outstanding day out on the water. We found out later that Time Bandit is based in Homer, AK., which is a town we would visit later in the trip.

Millie took the first-mate’s seat on the way back (28) and as we got closer to land, the clouds started to break and the water turned a beautiful blue-green. Ken told us it was OK to climb up on the roof of the boat (30) and from there I was able to snap a few final pictures of some lone cabins, fields of Alaskan Fireweed, and the truly massive and breathtaking Mendenhall Glacier (31).

We ended the day with a small family reunion at Juneau’s Island Pub, a gourmet pizza restaurant. I know what most people are thinking — Juneau, Alaska + gourmet pizza… PASS! That would be a grave mistake as the pizza was great. We had the Tuscany, the Pizza Galore, and the Greek and they were all outstanding. All three were devoured in short order, and after a few glasses of Alaskan Amber and an after-dinner scotch (Oban 14) we were headed back to the Statendam to rest up for the next day’s kayaking trip in Fraser, B.C. and subsequent return to Skagway via the White Pass & Yukon Railway.

 

SKAGWAY / WHITE PASS / FRASER, B.C.

We rose early in Skagway in order to make the bus ride up to Fraser, B.C. for a kayak outing. The bus climbed its way through various valleys and mountain passes, eventually up into dense fog. Soon the warming temperatures caused to fog to lift just enough for us to see the pristine, glacier-fed lake that would be our playground for the next few hours.

The lake was freezing cold, but that didn’t stop the kayak instructors from barefoot dragging our boats off of the shore. We paddled around the frigid waters for a few hours, passing inlets, rock formations, and experiencing some seriously beautiful panoramas. Unfortunately the fog lingered, so we could never get a clear view of the surroundings and mountain tops, but what we were able to see was not a disappointment.

At the end of the session, we made shore just in time to board our train which would return us to Skagway where the ms Statendam was docked. The train was operated by the White Pass & Yukon Railway. There is much history behind this line which you can read about by visiting the link. The short version: it was a gold rush era rail and foot path. The current train transports passengers only but is on the same rails and follows the same path as it did 100 years ago. As we snaked back down through the mountains, it was humbling to think that people WALKED this same route, sometimes several times in one week, in terrible weather and with wildlife and other dangers (falling boulders) lurking everywhere. Many people died, and few actually found gold. I would encourage anyone interested in history, nature, or the intricacies of human ambition to read this and this to learn more.

You can also view some video footage of the railway (shot by Lisa) here. Rail footage is near the beginning.

GLACIER BAY

Glacier Bay was the most visually and emotionally moving part of the whole trip. It was my favorite area by far — not just because of the scenery, but also because of how it made me feel and the perspective it brought me regarding things that I used to take far too seriously. It is hard to put into words. This is nature in its most basic and elemental state. The scale of the Earth and its features in this area are humbling and scary, but at the same time I realized a clarity and calmness within that I have never really experienced at any other time or anywhere else. It is nearly untouched by man and there are layers of elements here — ice, rock, water — that have been here for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. Seeing a cross-section of history in this way (37) gave me a unique perspective our on 1-week long cruise.

Maybe I feel this way because I don’t travel to places like this often. Even so, that makes it all the more important to me. It was an amazing feeling being surrounded by towering glaciers, mountains, and wildlife as far as eyes could see. I was on the bow of the ship with plenty of other people — talking, oohing, aaahing, snapping pictures and the like — but for the majority of our tangent into the bay I would register nothing but wind, birds, waves, and my own thoughts. It was truly a remarkable experience and those few hours in the bay were some of the purest and most valuable I have had, not only on the trip but in my life. I would recommend this for anyone who may have the chance or resources to make it happen.

COLLEGE FJORD

More of the same and definitely not complaining! Although College Fjord was a shorter trip and definitely not as grand in scale as Glacier Bay (in my opinion), the feelings were the same: calm, primitive, silent, magnificent.

 

KENAI

Our cruise ended in Anchorage. There were no activities planned here but we still had a few days left on our trip. Roger and Donna (Lisa’s extended family) live in Kenai, AK for half of the year, and were nice enough not only to pick us up in Anchorage, but host us at their house for several days. Kenai is about 3 hours (by car) southwest of Anchorage near Cook Inlet. As you can imagine, the drive between Anchorage and Kenai was beautiful, and the house was on a channel leading to the Kenai River. The channel was host to plenty of small wildlife, such as salmon and various shorebirds (42, 43). Where the channel ended and the Kenai River began, the water turned a surreal shade of blue that I don’t think I have ever seen before (44).

I had been waiting to get a close-up picture of a bald eagle for entire trip. It was getting down to the wire. With only one day left, I felt that some of the heavy and expensive camera gear I had rented and lugged all the way to Alaska was going to remain unused. On our final sightseeing ride down the Kenai River, while returning back to the house, I spotted a nest high in a tree along the shore. There were two adult eagles at attention, with eyes on our boat. With 400mm equivalent of glass on the end of my camera, I was able to get close enough to get the pics I was hoping for. We were on the water with a heavy current, but Roger was able to turn the boat around and perfectly match the current’s force in the opposite direction so the boat remained as still as possible. While shooting, I thought to myself, “You know what would make this really special? If that bird took off in our direction over the water and landed on this side instead.” The eagle must have sensed something — not 5 seconds after this thought crossed my mind the eagle launched from its nest and swooped (and I mean SWOOPED, with an 8-foot wingspan) down over the pale blue water directly in front of our boat (45, 46). After a mere 3 or 4 flaps of its gigantic wings, it was across the river and then soared upward and perched at the top of a tree (47), as if to pose for photos for as long as we could fight the current. I wouldn’t say I expected it to be easy, but focusing on an eagle, in flight, with and 8 pound camera, from a moving boat, at about 50 yards turns out to be kind of difficult. Luckily the technology was on my side, as the continuous auto-focus locked on successfully for several sharp frames. It was amazing, almost as if this animal knew what I was waiting for, and provided better photo-ops than I ever thought I would get being confined to small boats, ships, and trains for most of the trip. That bird ended my trip on a very high note!

I have to thank Roger and Donna not only for the hospitality and transportation, but also for living in such a great location. Also, Roger’s boat maneuvering skills played a huge part in my being able to capture the shots that I was hoping for since months prior to the trip.

HOMER

Our last day — Roger and Donna drove us down to Homer, AK and Homer Spit, a spike of land that sticks out in Kachemak Bay. We visited a lot of shops and restaurants, including the famous Salty Dawg Saloon, and ate lunch (halibut tacos) at Land’s End Restaurant. There is a shop here that sells ONLY merchandise related to the “Time Bandit” crab boat from “Deadliest Catch.” These guys know how to stretch their 15 minutes!

In Homer we tried to get our fill of the landscape and views (49) that we had become so accustomed to over the last 10 days. It would be hard to leave, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to the 6-hour flight home from Anchorage, but as they say, a good thing can’t last forever. It was a great trip that I will never forget, and hopefully some day we will be able to return — we really only scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in the “Land of the Midnight Sun.”

Full set of pics available here.