This was a day that fit all expectations of what a cruise to Alaska might be. All night as we slept the ship cruised north through Chatham Strait and when we woke there was thick fog all around us. I felt relief as the fog lifted and fell, and in the distance, I could see the sidewalls of the fjord coming closer. Amazingly, we had a clear day, with only some high clouds, but nothing to obstruct the views of the magnificent mountains all around us. We heard that the mountains had not been seen for days prior to this one. Dressing warmly, we headed for the upper decks to watch as we entered Tracy Arm and our encounter with a glacier.
I really had no idea how impressive this trip would be. The trip to Sawyer Glacier from the entryway into Tracy Arm is about 27 miles. It was breathtaking, and only became more so the farther we traveled. Our captain has more than 30 years of experience, and as I watched the icebergs getting bigger and bigger I felt grateful for his skill. Mo and I went to the forward upper decks to see as much as possible. The winds were incredible, and the air was cold. Gee, ya think? After all, it is a glacier and those are ice bergs! After a bit of time, I went back down to the pool deck to find tables of mittens and hats and blankets for sale and they were doing a hefty business. I bought some gloves. Once more, back to the upper deck to see the icebergs and watch for the first view of Sawyer glacier. I think I should have known somehow that icebergs and glaciers were blue, but I didn’t, or at least I didn’t have a clue just how blue. The glacial blue is a translucent turquoise, pale but lit from within. It’s a bit like that Caribbean color that I love, only surrounded by ice rather than warmth.
When we reached Sawyer Island, the ice was too thick for us to continue any farther up the fjord for a closer look at the glacier. The captain rotated the ship around while some people boarded a small excursion boat taking them deeper into the fjord. I can see why a cruise to Glacier Bay might be impressive, with much closer encounters. For my first trip to Alaska, however, I am grateful for what I did see, and incredibly grateful for a clear sunny day to see it. As the day wore on, we kept hearing over and over how very lucky we were for the lack of rain and fog. It seems that we brought the sunlight with us, because everywhere we went we heard that it had been raining hard for the last three weeks until we arrived. Perfect.
The boat turned and headed back out of the fjord. By the way, another thing I should have known but didn’t, is that a fjord is a glacially carved inlet with tidal salt water, no beaches and vertical walls. I am ready now to see the Scandinavian Fjords, or maybe those in New Zealand. As we headed back out of Tracy Arm, we passed another ship, the Golden Princess, and had fun cheering each other as we passed. It was a perfect chance to get a photo of a ship identical to ours in the fjord in a way that we couldn’t get while actually on our own ship.
Another great thing on this cruise has been the commentary by Kathy Slamp, a delightful woman and naturalist who has lived in Alaska much of her life. Kathy discussed the landscape, the geology and geography of the glaciers, in addition to some of the colorful history of the area. Kathy conducted a daily lecture series in the theater, with slides and stories that helped us more fully experience the landscape where we traveled.
We were out of Tracy Arm by 10 am, heading for Juneau. Arrival in port at 2 in the afternoon was accompanied by brilliant, clear blue skies and magnificent snow topped mountains. Again, Mo and I decided to do our own excursion. Our boat was docked at the farthest possible place, so we bought a shuttle ticket to town, and once there found another inexpensive shuttle to the Mendenhall Glacier just out of town about 15 miles. I’m not sure what the excursion would have cost, but for us, paying $17.00 each to do our own thing was perfect, and we didn’t have to adhere to someone else’s schedule.
The visitor center at Mendenhall Glacier is managed by the Tongass National Forest. There are trails and viewpoints, ponds and wildlife, and signs about the glacier. Mo and I took off on the hike to a waterfall just east of the glacier. Previously, as we cruised Tracy Arm, we saw many waterfalls, some of them 1000 feet high, yet they appeared dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape around us. Hiking to this waterfall gave us the opportunity to see just how massive these falls are up close. Mendenhall Glacier is part of the Juneau Ice Fields and is rapidly retreating. Another local comment: “See the Mendenhall Glacier before it’s gone”. On the trail, we met another woman, walking the trails trying to find a way across the stream. She had lived in Juneau for more than 40 years and said she hadn’t seen the water as high as it was this year in that stream. She also pointed out a spot on the landscape, very distant from the present terminus of the glacier, and said when she moved to Juneau, that was where the glacier used to be. Global warming isn’t just a concept in Alaska, it’s real. Everyone in the state talked about the retreat of the glaciers. It’s dramatic and measureable.
After our hike we took the shuttle back to town in time to do a bit of shopping. Juneau was much bigger than Ketchikan, in fact, there was even a good deal of five-0-clock traffic. The shops were interesting as well, and we stopped in to visit the famous Red Dog Saloon for an Alaskan beer. The place was noisy and fun, with sawdust floors, a colorful history, and some live music from a honky-tonk piano man and a crunchy old guitarist. By this time, we were beginning to wear out, so even the delight of nice shops couldn’t keep me going and we headed back to the ship. Leaving Juneau was sunny and gorgeous. How lucky for us!
We decided on an early supper in Horizon Court so that we could go to the production show at 8:15. The show “The Piano Man”, was better than the previous one, but still not a very impressive production show. Mo and I have been watching “So You Think You Can Dance” and decided that it made us a bit snobbish about choreography and good dancing.
We were definitely tired when we retired to our cabin for the night. We have discovered that an Alaskan cruise isn’t as relaxing as one to the Caribbean. Sitting here discussing, and wondering just why that is: maybe it’s the lack of sun time and deck time, or maybe the wild landscape around us that is so stimulating. We are hiking more, perhaps, and quite a bit more active, even though we do a lot on most cruises, it seems different somehow. It’s a beautiful cruise destination, but the cruising experience itself feels quite different.