Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Surreal and Mundane

Since this was my first cruise, I was constantly noticing things that seemed either out of place on a boat, or things that were perfectly normal on boats but unusual to me. For example, the atrium lobby seemed more like the lobby of a Cineplex than an ocean vessel.

ship elevator

ship stairs

Elsewhere, the satellite/radar domes loomed over the deck like alien overlords, and the spare propeller blades fastened to the foredeck made me worry about how often they break off and require replacement.

ship domes

prop blades

Thanks to some bad publicity surrounding contagious diseases on ships, these hand sanitizer dispensers were located everywhere. We were not permitted to enter a restaurant or board the ship after going ashore without an attendant spraying our hands with it.


After walking around for awhile, we came to the conclusion that there is really nothing to do on a cruise ship. Oh, they make an attempt to get passengers involved, offering classes in such disciplines as towel-folding and jewelry shopping (seriously). Every day there was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and a GLBT mixer. There were things ending in “o”: bingo, a disco, a casino, espresso, gelato and a soft rock combo. Most of the entertainment seemed about the same level of quality that you might expect at a Midwest airport Holiday Inn. Worse, the cruise line wrings nickels and dimes out of the passengers at every turn. For example, there are exactly two water fountains on the ship for 2,000 passengers. It’s their way of selling bottled water at $2.50 each.


Before long, we noticed a lot of people just sitting in chairs, staring at the horizon.

horizon watchers

There seemed to be a kind of low-IQ factor among the passengers, who seemed amazed or delighted by things that I considered rather ordinary. The first morning, the seas were just a little rough, with whitecaps. It was enough that you could feel it, but not enough to cause discomfort. I had a cup of coffee next to one of the swimming pools, and the water was sloshing back and forth, spilling over the sides.


A guy walked up next to me, watched the waves crashing from one end of the pool to the other, and asked, "How do they make it do that?"

"Physics," I replied. He looked at me strangely and walked away.

I had no time to explain further, because I had to deal with a personal issue. When you go on a long trip, you have to bring a lot of clothes. On a cruise ship, laundry is ridiculously expensive. By the time we boarded the ship, I had a lot of dirty socks, and it was more expensive to wash them than it was to buy new socks. But they don’t sell socks on our cruise ship. So I washed them in the sink, and hung them on a clothesline in the shower.

wet socks

Three days later, they were still wet. By then I was low on clean underwear also. In desperation, I came up with this elegant solution.

dry socks

Those are hangars from the closet jammed into the air conditioner vent. The flow of air dried the socks and underwear overnight. If you take a cruise, bring a small bottle of Woolite and you can take me out to dinner with the money you save.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


After Denali, our travel plans involved a 7-day cruise to Vancouver. We made the 4-hour drive back to Anchorage International Airport to return the rental car and pick up the cruise shuttle to Whittier, Alaska. This is a sore point with me.

For some unknown reason, our cruise line does not pick up passengers in Anchorage. One would think that a port with the name “Anchorage” that had an international airport would be the ideal cruise ship departure point. But our cruise line docked in Whittier, a town of about 180 people located an hour and a half away. The shuttle bus to Whittier cost us each $55. Worse, Whittier is only accessible through a ridiculous one-lane tunnel.

The Whittier Tunnel through Maynard Mountain was originally constructed in the early 1940’s by the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s two and a half miles long, making it the second longest highway tunnel in North America, although it didn’t start as a highway tunnel. Originally, it was constructed as a railroad tunnel, and it is only 11.5 feet wide. Later, it was converted to a mixed-use tunnel for cars and the railroad.

This means that cars and buses must be “staged” at one end while vehicles are allowed through from the other. When a train comes, vehicles are held at both ends until the train passes through.

whittier tunnel
Once in the tunnel, our bus crept along, seemingly inches from the walls. “Safe rooms” appear at intervals, enabling travelers to find a secure place to wait in the event of a vehicle fire or avalanche. After an eternity, the exit appeared, depositing us in the booming metropolis of Whittier.

whittier tunnel exit
Most of the residents of Whittier work for the state of Alaska, maintaining the port facilities. The rest are fishermen. All 180 of them live in the only residential building in the town (it’s that apartment building in the photo below).

whittier apartments
We were dropped at the dock, where we got our first look at the cruise ship on which we would be living with nearly 3,000 other people for the next 7 days. It looks considerably smaller than that apartment building, but holds about 15 times as many people.

norwegian sun
Here’s why: The accommodations for the passengers and crew are tiny, as we expected. But surprisingly, we did not find the situation uncomfortable.

The bathroom was cramped, but manageable. This photo shows (left to right) the shower, the commode and the sink. During the cruise, I saw lots of passengers who simply would not fit into it, and I wondered how they managed.

The port of Whittier is enclosed by snowy mountains. It’s quite beautiful, and strange to see such a landscape from the pool deck of a cruise ship.

whittier harbor 2
whittier harbor 1
boat deck
We suffered through the mandatory lifeboat drill, and then movable thrusters gently nudged us away from the dock, the main engines thrummed to life, and we were on our way.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Denali National Park

We drove north along the scenic Parks Highway towards Denali National Park, gazing at the scenic beauty and marveling at the one thing that Alaska seems to lack: Traffic.

denali mountain 1

We made such good time, that we decided to take a detour into the tiny town of Talkeetna, which is known for its old buildings and country charm. There was some kind of local festival taking place, and the place was packed with tourists. I didn’t enjoy my visit to Talkeetna, but I did enjoy seeing the metropolitan airport.

talkeetna runway

On the way out of town, we stumbled upon this display of an antique snowmobile.

antique snowmobile

Back on the road to Denali, we ran across a herd of caribou grazing by the side of the highway.

caribou 1

There is one road into Denali National Park. The 92-mile long stretch of road is paved for the first 15 miles, which is as far as cars are allowed to drive. The rest of the road is unpaved, winding along sheer cliff faces, and only buses are allowed on it. The road is closed during the winter months, and in the spring, road crews begin the difficult, dangerous task of restoring the road for traffic. As they repair the washouts, remove rockslides and fill cavernous potholes, the road is gradually opened in stages. In late May, when we arrived, the road was open as far as mile 53.

We boarded one of these green buses operated by the Park Service, and began the long, twisty drive into the park. The buses operate at frequent intervals, and we were told that we could get off the bus at any point, and simply catch the next bus to continue our journey or return to the park entrance.

green bus

Some people ride in with backpacks, hike into the wilderness and camp. It sounded like camping paradise, until the bus driver gave us the bear lecture. Alaskan brown bears inhabit the park, and they are huge and dangerous. Alaskans do not call them “grizzly bears,” although they are the same species. The driver tried to impress upon us exactly how deadly bear encounters can be. If you climb a big tree to escape one, they will climb up to get you. If you climb a small tree that is too skinny for them to climb, they push it over to get you. If confronted by a bear, we were told to make ourselves look big by opening our coats, back away slowly, and DO NOT RUN.

At rest stops, the bathroom doors were made bear-proof as a refuge in the event of an attack.

bear-proof door

As we drove slowly into the park, we saw moose, caribou, ptarmigan (the state bird of Alaska) and yes, brown bears.


caribou 2


brown bear 1

This bear was digging for something, and the driver told us that it was probably looking for tubers called "Eskimo Potatoes."

At the mile 53 stop, a small naturalist display building was set up, which included antlers and skulls.



The air was clean and crisp as a MacIntosh apple, so rich in oxygen that it was nearly intoxicating. We hung out for awhile, and then someone noticed this bear, wandering along the valley floor, headed our way.

brown bear approach

The bus driver announced our departure, and I confess that I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have to hide in the bathroom. We left the parking area, but the bus driver stopped to let us watch the bear approach. At the same moment, we noticed a guy on the road coming from a different direction. He was waving and running towards us, obviously wanting to catch a ride back to park entrance. He couldn’t see the bear. Everyone on the bus began yelling to warn him, but he couldn’t hear us. When he got to the bus, the bear was only about 15 feet away.

bear at bus

We pointed out how close he had come to running directly into the bear, and he collapsed into a seat, white-faced. The bear crossed directly in front of the bus without so much as a sideways glance, and continued up the side of a hill, seemingly unaware of the bus and the 30 or so tasty tourists inside.

brown bear leave

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Knik Glacier

After our dogsledding adventure, we flew from Troublesome Glacier to the Knik Glacier, the largest glacier in the Knik River valley. The view was awe-inspiring, and I learned something interesting about glaciers: they’re dirty. For tens of thousands of years, they’ve been grinding mountains into powder, and the ice is full of it. As the Knik Glacier heaves and twists its way down the valley, a broad stripe of mountain-powder is forced out of the ice into a broad stripe down the center.

Knik Glacier
We flew over the glacier, marveling at the variety of landscapes it contains: blocks the size of apartment buildings, ridges, cracks, rolling plains and a huge number of frigid greenish-blue glacial lakes. Our guide told us that those lakes appear and disappear every week. A crack will open up, and the water drains out in a matter of minutes.

Knik Surface 2
Knik Surface 3
Knik Surface 6
Knik Surface
Knik Surface 7
The pilot and our guide hunted for a place to land (it changes every week), and we set down on the surface. Our guide outfitted us with crampons and a harness.

Tim on Knik
The crampons were to keep us from slipping into a crevasse. The harness was so that our guide could pull our limp, broken bodies out of a crevasse.

Most crevasses were clearly visible, but our guide poked at the surface with a ski pole as we walked, to ensure that we didn’t step onto a thin layer of ice and snow covering a deathtrap.

There were a lot of leaf holes. A leaf hole is formed when a leaf blows onto the glacier surface. The leaf is darker than the ice, so it absorbs more sunlight, heating up and melting the ice underneath.

Knik leaf
We walked for a couple of hours, enjoying the crisp air and the mild temperatures, not to mention the scenic wonders.

glacial pool
Knik Mountain

Our guide was an interesting, offensively fit guy in his mid-thirties, who claimed to have climbed most of the mountains we could see from where we were. He told us that the Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges meet at the Knik River Valley. One is home to mountain goats, and another is home to Dall sheep. It’s one of the few places where the two species meet.

Eventually, the helicopter came back, and we flew back over the face of the glacier into the valley. I have to say that the dogsledding and glacier hike was absolutely the high point of our trip, and it was only our first day in Alaska.

chopper returns
chopper shadow
Knik Valley 2