A Cruise Skeptic Sails to Alaska
The cast of characters – your narrator, Spousal Unit, Jay and Linda (parental units in law), Breanna, Brian, Isaac (stepsister, her husband, their young ‘un), Andrew, Dustin, Glenda, Spencer (friends of B&B – and ours, too, after sharing various shenanigans), and assorted family and friends thereof.
With so much variance in hometowns and flight schedules, there was no point in driving multiple hours to some other city to coordinate. We decided to pay the premium of two one-way flights to our dinky regional airport, trusting the agent’s skills at getting the best possible rates.
Spousal Unit and I bought thickly treaded hiking shoes for the trip. I packed for sporty layered comfort – stretchy jeans, roll-up khakis, mix of tank tops and long sleeves, lightweight fleece and separate rain shell, headband and gloves for being out on deck to catch glacier views. I much prefer cold to heat, and the weather we prepared for – chilly to warm, with varying amounts of liquid sunshine – is similar to what I am used to bike commuting through. Spousal Unit took comparable outerwear, a few button-downs, and enough undershirts and shorts to get by with my sink laundry skills. Since I also take pride in my packing Tetris skills, all of our clothes fit into one large suitcase. My mom had given us a set of packing cubes with a separate clean and dirty compartment, which really helped squish and organize.
Thirteen hours in transit started off surprisingly well. I got kale and Brussels sprout salad while dashing to our connection in Detroit, fantastic local salmon and a couple of beers during our layover in Seattle. I was also amazed by the movies, TV shows, and touchscreen games on our Detroit to Seattle leg – I never expected such amenities for us plebeians in economy class. Jet lag started to catch up after that point, and the final haul to Anchorage suplexed the fading remnants of my sanity. I remember grumping at anything and everything. I do not recall arguing with a protein bar as Spousal Unit insists I did.
Spencer crashed in our room, as he had a late flight and needed somewhere to sleep. He repaid us with breakfast. I awoke energetically and then started to drag, and then to question the wisdom of my choice to donate blood the day before flying four hours off my schedule.
Our group traveled to the cruise terminal in Seward on a narrated wildlife bus tour with Alaska Cruise Transportation. It was about the nicest ride we could expect – comfortable bus with bathroom, friendly guide telling us how much time we could expect on each leg, interesting commentary on glaciers and wildlife and various features in passing. We drove around Turnagain Arm and through the tiny village of Moose Pass, with even tinier roadside stands selling tacos and coffee. There were rustic hostels and upscale log cabins with coordinated garages, a lone Viking scarecrow guarding a small field. The landscape was subdued in the fog and rain, but a pleasant enough backdrop for our journey.
The bus tour included a stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization focused on rehabilitating orphaned and injured animals for eventual release into the wild. Those who cannot be reintegrated are given a permanent home at the center in a suitably natural habitat. The bears were out and about, the elks gleefully digging into their lunch, the lynx hiding from the crowds and still showing a hint of magnificent paw. We had a reasonable time to enjoy the center without overly extending the trip.
All Aboard Radiance of the Seas
Full disclosure – I have been on a single ocean cruise, a brief jaunt in the Bahamas aboard the Carnival Fantasy. I don’t count it as informed experience of this travel style because I was all of twelve at the time. My main memories involve playing one of my piano compositions in the talent show, jumping the midnight buffet line for desserts, running around with my cousin and a bunch of other boys of similar age, and getting laughed at by said cousin for my strapless formal night dress and awkward heels. The Caribbean was unbelievably turquoise clear – the ship’s pool tiny and disappointing, with a bizarre saltwater aftertaste that I somehow never got at the beach.
Radiance of the Seas is about the same size, so I expected a partial case of deja vu. I didn’t really get one because the ship’s layout is different enough from my fragmented memories of the Fantasy. After a full morning of travel, assorted waiting at the terminal, and inching up a packed gangway into even more crowds, Spousal Unit and I had little patience for further delays onboard. We noped out of the photo station and raced through the upsell gauntlet and down to our interior cabin, where we ditched our stuff before going off in search of food.
I am well aware that cruise ships have plenty to eat. My goal was to locate the subset of plenty that best fit my habits and restrictions – no red meat or poultry, lots of protein and fruit and veg and beans and other such light and nutritious plant matter. The Park Cafe – unknown to many of the hordes, and thus without a line – had assorted fruit and a vegetable and portabella panini that I expressed audible excitement over. It was pretty good when reheated. When the Windjammer opened for dinner, we found lightly prepared and well-flavored salmon and a variety of marinated salads. Later, we learned that our entire group had been set up to share two large tables at the main dining room’s early seating. I thought we had a random table assignment and wouldn’t be allowed in anyhow, as Spousal Unit was wearing shorts and we didn’t yet have our luggage. It would have been nice to know that before we skipped the scheduled dinner and had people wondering where we went.
After sating the hunger monster, it was time to explore and enjoy group shenanigans. I went to a liquor tasting with Glenda and Dustin, which made me aware of Atomic Fireball flavored whiskey and had us coming back to the small and packed shopping area for some raffle that took forever to start and made me feel squished enough that I got out before it got going. As I suspected – and later confirmed – I basically missed nothing. Spousal Unit crashed early. I made it through a martini in Jay and Linda’s room before losing it myself.
I had heard many complaints from prior Radiance cruisers about the onboard satellite Internet, so I had decided against preordering it. I caved and bought it anyhow so we could message others in our group, make calls over wi-fi, and of course post pictures to social media. Despite issues with getting dropped and being unable to reconnect – and a full day outage near Skagway, which I wasn’t happy about paying for given that the Cruise Compass indicated that we were in a known satellite dead zone – it worked well enough for those purposes.
Sea Day – Hubbard Glacier
I woke up stupid early to the curse of a nonfunctional toilet, which was fixed within the couple of hours estimated by guest services. Ship toilets work on a tetchy vacuum system that has a way of shutting down the pipes for a huge swath of the boat when something goes wonky, so it wasn’t too surprising. I also experienced the curse of the confused Chromebook, which hadn’t actually downloaded all of my documents for offline writing. Later, I found I could temporarily connect it without paying for more service – each Internet account is simply limited to one device at a time – so this was yet another grumble of minimal consequence.
With a full three hours before breakfast, I roamed the Radiance in its quietude. I snapped some shots of the deserted Centrum. I learned that one needs to go through things to get to other things, such as the Aurora Theater and Quill and Compass Pub both located behind the casino. I struggled against the wind on the upper deck where someone was already out on the jogging path. I went up and down nine-odd flights of stairs a few times to scratch my own itch for physical activity.
Park Cafe coffee was reasonable with a sweetener packet or two, dining room breakfast slow but pleasant although I had to get my omelet redone over unwanted ham. I speed read a cheesy mystery in the library nook off the Centrum. Spencer pulled the trigger on unlimited beer and wasted no time getting his money’s worth from the package. We chilled out with him, Brian, and Dustin in the Schooner Bar – eventually to become one of our default hangouts – where I enjoyed my first Alaskan microbrew.
Spousal Unit had brought a portable gaming system to occupy his down time. As we awaited the Hubbard Glacier, he set up camp on a random couch in the Centrum. I wandered over to the nearby Champagne Bar and ended up with a Jaffa Cake cocktail in hand and a prime window seat. Jay and Linda also joined us, and I ducked out onto the relatively unpopulated deck below when the looming ice wall kicked my general appreciation of the scenery over the threshold of amazement. We had a clear and close view of the glacier, witnessing several thunderous calvings, and the captain did donuts so everyone could enjoy. The low deck was much warmer than expected – I was comfortable in a thin long-sleeved shirt, with or without my fuzzy headband.
Spousal Unit and I are fine with dressing up for events where formality is the focus. Otherwise, we can generally leave this whole notion of fancypants. I love efficiency in general, and I balk at weighing down my luggage with outfits and shoes to be worn for limited decorative purposes. Alaska cruises reportedly trend casual, and the formal dinner dress style is only a suggestion. Thus we decided to eat in the dining room with the subset of our group who had not gone to Chops – Steaks on a Boat, for those unfamiliar, and not worth the $30 upcharge for me to make do with whatever non-meat was available. I expected a mix of formal and non, including the sort of khakis and button-down style we were sporting. Instead I seemed to be in one of those dreams where I found myself at school without pants. The dining room line looked like a wedding reception and was easily confused with another long wait for photos. Much as I hate to admit feeling self-conscious over minutiae, I was relieved to see one other similarly dressed couple heading into the dining room.
I FLY A GIGANTIC MONSTER I AM CAPTAIN EVIL STOPPER I GET TO WEAR BIG BLACK HELMET I PILOT THE HATREDCOPTER
Yes. A common aircraft will strip away all semblance of dignity and transform me into Dethklok Cornholio – especially if it is taking me to trek across a monstrous river of ice. Holy liftoff, Batman! Is this seriously happening?
It seriously is.
There was some concern about weather-related cancellation. Trekking excursions have several choices of glacier, hence a much greater chance of finding a safe destination than flights to the one and only sled dog camp. Even so, Northstar Trekking’s posted 5-10% cancellation rate was nonzero enough that my inner worrywart kept squawking about possible contingency plans all the way through meetup time.
Near the docks, Franklin Street was a shopping corridor. The crowds thinned exponentially as we ventured uphill in search of more local interest. We walked by St. Nicholas Orthodox Church – closed to tourists on a Sunday – and the Canvas Community Art Studio, embellished with a mosaic of clay faces, in which an artist was paint dyeing a bolt of fabric. A Zelda book in a shop window caught my eye. We went into Alaska Robotics to find an enthusiastic and chatty cashier, board games and other assorted books of nerdy and creative interest, including a massive guide to illustration by Andrew Loomis, one of my art heroes and inspirations. I bought it to add to my collection of treasured hardcover references. With much time remaining before meetup, we stopped at the very chill Heritage Coffee for eponymous caffeine, biscotti, and cookies and cream gelato.
Northstar Trekking picked us up a bit late – as we learned, a cruise ship’s delayed arrival had thrown off their schedule – and whisked us off to headquarters. We each had a full setup of name-labeled gear – hard shelled boots, snow pants, gaiters, harnesses, windbreakers, small backpacks, and gloves. Guides assisted us into our equipment, swapping out the odd sizing snafu, and we were off to a safety presentation and the chopper itself.
Due to the scheduling delays, the pilot took us directly to base camp on Mendenhall Glacier. We received crampons, trekking poles, helmets, and a basic orientation to ice traversal, demonstrated and practiced as we proceeded to our climbing site.
Walking on a glacier is like being on top of a giant blue slushie with an intermittent howl of wind that sounds colder than it actually is. The glacier is said to be about ten degrees Fahrenheit below temperatures in town. To me, it felt anywhere from neutral to nippy – a good thing, as I was only wearing short sleeves under the minimally insulated windbreaker provided. Those who prefer warmer weather should bring more layers and ear covering that won’t interfere with a helmet.
We never actually got far from base camp. The stated fitness guideline – ability to walk five miles over mixed terrain – is meant to approximate the tour’s overall workload. Glacier trekking involves lots of deliberate stepping, anchoring of toes, and squatting back with weight on heels when it comes time to descend a slope. One of the guides got a cheer from me for declaring every day to be leg day out here.
Our guides took the safe long way up to a 50-foot ice wall to anchor a pair of belays for climbing. Spousal Unit – a surprisingly fast trundler when equipped with spikes – clambered up like a boss. I started out with a solid rhythm, then got flustered when I struggled to find purchase near the vertical top of the wall. I lost it all multiple times, further frustrated by my perceived reversion from Weight Room Hero to Gym Class Zero. It was no issue – the guides were patient and encouraging and made plenty of time for everyone – but awkwardly twisting in the wind feels like an eternity.
After dismantling the belays, the guides led us off to explore. They warned us to stay behind them at all times, as the upcoming attraction was one of the most dangerous features on the glacier. I heard the rushing water before I saw it, and I gasped at my first view of this churning, cavernous drain – a moulin bleu.
A short distance away, another moulin bleu tunneled deep into the glacier.
This inactive moulin had filled up into a lake and was therefore much less treacherous than the others. If you fall in, you can at least be fished out before succumbing to hypothermia, as opposed to being flushed hundreds of feet beneath the ice.
Thanks to the high cloud ceiling, we got an extra long flightseeing tour on the way back. Our weather was near perfect in general. Overcast days cut the blinding effect of sunlight and bring out the blue of the glaciers, and there was no rain to decrease visibility. We flew near another helicopter, and the pilots chatted back and forth, as excited about the long tour as we were. We saw a few dots of goats and a valley demonstrating various phases of glacial sculpting – ice itself, regrowing greenery, bare earth and rocks thereafter.
Our fellow cruisers had bought enough wine for everyone to take the permitted two bottles per stateroom. After dinner, we popped the cork on our white, which was thoughtfully chilled by our room steward. Our friends had a much later arrival and meal time. Bummed at having missed out on the prior night’s festivities, I wandered up to the Windjammer, glass in hand, to join them. We ended up at Schooner Bar with more wine, singing along with Derrek Wayne the piano man, until responsibility dictated that I get some sleep for my early tomorrow.
7:30 a.m. ship clearance and 8 a.m. downtown excursion meetup called for room service breakfast. We each filled out our own door hanger. Mine disappeared sometime before bedtime, and I didn’t think much of it until Spousal Unit got his food and I did not. I made do with an apple, a piece of toast, and the carton of milk delivered with coffee.
Our rushed walk into Skagway took us past a marina and some campgrounds. Town popped out around a corner, and we hustled to our meetup at Sockeye Cycling. Everyone squished into a van to the Taiya River Bridge, where we chose and adjusted our bikes and had some time to practice. Spousal Unit found his exact model from home. Mine was more bent over than my upright hybrid, so I needed a few minutes to acclimate.
We biked down a flat but rutted dirt trail to the ruins of Dyea, a ghost town and erstwhile gateway to the Klondike gold fields that lost its competition with Skagway when the White Pass Railroad opened. All that remains is a false storefront to an equally crooked real estate office.
Next up were the Dyea tidal flats, a scenic vista with the stumps of a long gone pier. The ground here was all sand and rocks, so naturally cobbled in places that I felt I was riding a jackhammer.
Given a choice of hanging out further or seeing another historic site, our group chose the latter – Slide Cemetery, commemorating lives lost in the Palm Sunday landslide of April 3, 1898, the deadliest disaster of the Klondike gold rush. Rather, we visited a recreation of the original cemetery, which was now well underwater.
Skagway Float Tours led the next two parts of our trip. We hiked two miles of the Chilkoot Trail – once a route for gold prospectors – through the mossy fairy tale wonderland of the Tongass National Forest, occasionally stopping to learn about local plant life and features that changed with the seasons. In places, this trail was nature’s analog to a Stairmaster, with steep slopes of rocks and roots and occasional steps constructed of stone. We passed some other groups en route. In turn, a backpacker passed us on his quest to reach a camp thirteen miles ahead before nightfall.
We had given our shoe sizes before the hike, and boots and life jackets awaited us when we reached our inflatable raft on the shore of the Taiya River. We all sat around the outside of said raft, which felt sketchy at first but was plenty secure due to the calmness of the water. Photography on the float – an exercise in twisting around the obstructions of heads and bodies – was a matter of Point, Shoot, and Sort Later. I got a shot worth sharing and, more importantly, enjoyed a relaxing post-hike ride through an ever changing postcard vista.
I had taken minimal stuff because I didn’t know what options we would have for storing it. As it turned out, both Sockeye Cycling and Skagway Float Tours had their own locked vans that we could access after each respective leg. They also had water and granola bars, plus a snack of crackers, salmon dip, cheese, cookies, and juice at the end of the float.
Back in town, we wandered about while waiting for a table at Skagway Brewing. The beer was well worth the half hour delay, as was my portabella sandwich. I followed up with a vanilla chai and banana shake at Glacial Smoothies. Done for the day, Spousal Unit returned to the ship. The food and booze gave me a second wind for further exploration.
I hung around for the Red Onion Saloon tour, an efficient and informative peek into the history of a gold rush brothel. Our host, who works in New York outside of Alaska’s tourist season, was full of saucy jokes and double entendres. The tour featured artifacts that the women had hidden under floorboards, recreations of a sex worker and madam’s room, and a collection of framed wallpaper shards uncovered during restoration. Each woman was free to decorate her room as she pleased, and some contained up to eighteen layers of wallpaper. With ten rooms, this gives an idea of how many workers passed through during the two years of the gold rush.
Dyea Dave, a local tour guide and jovial character in general, drove by the Red Onion while I was waiting for the tour. His car bears an official warning decal – an icon of poultry denoting it as a chick magnet. He snapped this photo of me as proof.
Gann, our Skagway Float Tours guide, had recommended a jaunt up to Lower Dewey Lake to anyone looking for activities off the beaten tourist paths. The trailhead was a block away from downtown behind a building, not obvious unless you were actively looking for it. The trail was steep and rocky enough to give me a sense of accomplishment at reaching the lake. My feet and knees started to wear out, unused to enduring awkward and uneven footholds and already worked over by the Chilkoot slopes.
Wary of getting too far out, I only made the twenty minute hike to the lake although I had time to see more. Lower Dewey Lake was well worth the effort, with a beauty unseen by many visitors to Skagway.
We had no chance to take pictures en route into Skagway. I went back by a different way and came across a small park commemorating unsung heroes of the gold rush – Tlingit packers, shown here leading a prospector, and a plaque honoring three thousand pack animals killed – particularly on White Pass, which became infamous as Dead Horse Trail because of its impassability during the wet and muddy months.
Icy Strait Point
I wanted to leave room for laid-back tourism to avoid overscheduling the trip, and to maintain some semblance of frugality amid all the cash I was throwing around at must-do activities. Our awkward port time of 6:30 to 2:30 seemed well suited for a morning of casual exploration. Though mainly a launchpad for excursions, Icy Strait Point has enough to see for those sufficiently interested and motivated.
First up – a museum and gift shop located in a restored cannery. There were displays on Alaskan history and First Nations culture, along with equipment used for the fishing and canning of salmon. The gory replication of some filleting process would make a haunted house proud.
The 1 ½ mile walk into Hoonah was a flat, paved path between ocean and forest. Chairs of reclaimed wood offered an occasional respite to enjoy the view.
Hoonah reminded me of a rural Pennsylvania town with more of a maritime flair – lots of small weather-worn homes, wild and burgeoning yards, stacked firewood, frugal and creative repurposing. We saw front car seats set out for porch lounging, an old stove turned into a planter. Satellite dishes are ubiquitous here as well.
In town, we observed master craftsmen carving dugout canoes, along with totem poles and a screen – components of a tribal house to eventually reside in Glacier Bay National Park, the traditional homeland of the Huna Tlingit. As much as possible, the work on the tribal house is being done by hand.
Icy Strait Brewing had opened by the time we began to return to the ship. It’s a small and new establishment run by a couple of cool guys. I wish I liked the beer more than I did – it was smooth and drinkable, but nothing spectacular to someone who keeps top flight German hefeweizen at home. Still, I’m glad I had a chance to drop in.
I was so stoked to see lentils and mixed roasted vegetables at the Windjammer that I had two enormous bowls thereof. Camped out at the Champagne Bar to enjoy the scenery, we spotted distant whale spouts and an orca running alongside the ship. The people adjacent were amused at my excitement to see Free Willy for real. And for free.
With a desire to splurge on a fun dinner, and none whatsoever to feel out of place on formal night yet again, Spousal Unit and I decided to try Izumi. He had seafood hot rock – a do it yourself grilling experience – whereas I chose a spicy tuna roll lightly fried in tempura. The house dessert sampler was delicious, including mochi-wrapped ice cream, which Spousal Unit had ordered a selection of himself.
I had three goals for our morning in Ketchikan – seeing the unique boardwalk of Creek Street, touring the former madam’s residence known as Dolly’s House, and acquiring a locally made totem pole at Fish Creek Company, which I had researched beforehand and chosen for its extensive selection.
At Fish Creek, we were helped by a friendly young woman with First Nations heritage who showed me popular totem poles and some of her own recommendations. Each pole had a story card, but I liked the more personal presentation. I selected the story of Fog Woman – creator of salmon, provider of food for the people. I loved how this was presented to me as an example of traditional respect for women.
A costumed barker drew us into Dolly’s House, told the life story of Dolly Arthur with equal panache, and invited us to explore and photograph at will. Like the Red Onion, Dolly’s House was compact but well-curated, with a combination of displays, recreated rooms, and decor left as discovered. Dolly also peddled high octane booze during Prohibition, evidenced by bottles behind her closet wall boards and a hidden bar in a hallway cubby.
On the way back to the ship to deposit my purchase before our afternoon with Wild Wolf Tours, we stumbled across the Tongass Museum, a nice collection of historical and cultural artifacts and an extensive then and now photo section showing various slices of Ketchikan life. The admission price was a bargain for this detour of local appeal.
Tracy – of Tsimshian ancestry and from the Wolf clan, as inherited from her mother, and who coincidentally married a man surnamed Wolf – met us at our dock. Another couple and their fourth grader son joined us for a total of five on the tour. With a clear, pleasant teacher’s cadence and all ages appeal, Tracy shared tons of information on Ketchikan life and history and First Nations affairs, such as the government’s attempt to preserve native languages after forcing children to go to separate “Indian” schools which punished them for speaking their languages in the first place. Her daughter played several sports, but had to travel a long way to compete with other high schools – she once took a 40-hour trip for a half hour track meet. As we drove up the highway to Totem Bight Park and eventually to the Lunch Creek trailhead, various sights in passing became springboards for details and stories – a constant, friendly influx of education.
At Totem Bight Park, Tracy told the story of each pole, including the Fog Woman legend I had bought to take home. She also described life in the clan house, where up to fifty people lived in what seemed to us a small space. Residents entered through a seamless door on the side. A small entrance at front was for slaves, also serving as a safeguard against intruders, who would have to crouch through single file and be vulnerable to beatdowns from the women working inside.
The Lunch Creek trail was a leisurely stroll with a scavenger hunt for our youngest tourist, who excitedly checked off each plant on his list as he saw it. We also found a few geocaches preloaded on Tracy’s GPS. She provided gentle hints of cache locations and trinkets to exchange.
Tracy frequently stopped to identify plants and talk about their traditional uses. We had learned some of this on our Skagway hike, but Tracy had a more personal viewpoint rooted in her heritage. She showed us how to turn a particular leaf into a cup by bringing its lobes together and poking the stem back through. She explained how Ketchikan middle school children go on a three-day campout in the wilderness – and, in a later year, a survival expedition where they live off the land with a small pack of supplies. Tracy learned the hard way that one must purify the water before consuming it.
The weather had been surprisingly dry all day. We ended our tour with delicious smoked salmon dip just as Ketchikan’s famous liquid sunshine began to roll in. The experience was pleasantly reminiscent of day camps I had gone to as a child, and enjoyable for kids and adults alike.
Sea Day – Inside Passage
I watched a cake decorating contest between the cruise director and the captain, a fun show of slapstick and excuse to squeeze a whole bottle of cherry liqueur into a single Black Forest cake which we had a chance to taste afterward. I read a third of a Thomas Pynchon book about a stoner private investigator embroiled in some murder mystery conspiracy. I finally got onto the rock climbing wall as I had been meaning to do all week. It had enough holds for beginners and small children, but was harder than it looked from the ground. I did slip once – and relied too much on my hands, which were rather tired afterward – but overall felt satisfied with my first go at this sport.
Evening was all friends and family loafing time sponsored by everyone’s favorite party elves, Drinky and Winky. I relaxed my limit of acceptable indulgence in food and libations, as we had the final night to celebrate and wine to use up. Those frozen mojitos were totally worth it, as were the Cafe Latte-tudes cheesecake pops.