Our Alaska voyage: Fabulous time with family, wildlife and glaciers

Our family sails to Alaska aboard the Coral Princess. Back, from left, Madeline, Joe, Kim, Ashley, Tom, my traveling companion, me, Mike. In front are Susie with Julia, showing off the back of the shirt.

Our family sails to Alaska aboard the Coral Princess. Back, from left, Madeline holding Joe’s hand, Kim, Ashley, Tom, my traveling companion, me, Mike. In front are Susie with Julia, showing off the back of the shirt.

We had looked forward to the Alaska trip so long that my expectations for it were perhaps unreasonable. But the trip exceeded them completely.

This post is coming later than I intended. During the trip, I was too busy enjoying it to blog about it. And we immediately started our move to Baton Rouge upon returning (unfortunate timing, but we were not missing this trip and we couldn’t manage to move earlier).

I will recount highlights of the trip, mostly in photos, in three primary categories: family, glaciers and wildlife. Then I’ll share a few miscellaneous highlights.

Family

The math on our shirts

The math on our shirts

As spectacular as Alaska was, this trip was rooted in family, and sharing it with our wonderful family magnified the thrill of every amazing sight. Our three sons and their families cooked up this trip as a celebration of two milestones: We would celebrate my companion’s and my 40th wedding anniversary by visiting my 50th state. They not only gave us the trip as a gift, they all came along on the cruise, which multiplied our pleasure.

The time spent with them, as a group, individually and in various combinations, made for special memories I won’t detail here. But I’ll acknowledge them all: Mike and Susie and our granddaughters, Julia and Madeline; Joe and Kim; Tom and Ashley. Throw in Granny and Gramps, and we had 10 of us altogether. So I had t-shirts made up for us all to wear for a photo our first day on the water.

Simple family time together, lots of it, was an important part of the trip. Our sons each live more than 1,000 miles from each other -- and now more than 1,000 miles from us -- so a lunch with all three of them is pretty special.

Simple family time together, lots of it, was an important part of the trip. Our sons each live more than 1,000 miles from each other — and now more than 1,000 miles from us — so a lunch with all three of them is pretty special.

Glaciers

We had numerous excursion options at each port. In Juneau, our second port, Joe and I opted to visit the Mendenhall Glacier by helicopter.

“Spectacular” doesn’t begin to describe it. The short flight in provided spectacular aerial views. We flew up the glacier around a bend and got a look at a tributary, then turned around and landed on a relatively flat area between two icefalls. We had about 20-30 minutes there, with a guide giving us a brief tour.

You gotta take a selfie in the helicopter.

You gotta take a selfie in the helicopter.

An aerial view as we approach Mendenhall Glacier.

An aerial view as we approach Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier from our helicopter.

A closer view shows the ripples and crevasses from the glacier’s current.

We approach the landing site.

We approach the landing site.

Our helicopter on the glacier.

Our helicopter on the glacier.

Joe poses by the Alaska flag on the windy glacier surface.

Joe poses by the Alaska flag on the windy glacier surface. I was surprised at how blue the glacier was. We wore special boots over our shoes to give us traction on the surface, which is alternately crunchy and slick.

Surprises on the glacier's surface included the massive chunks of jagged ice and the countless boulders swept up in the glacier's downward movement. Most of them will fall into crevasses and be crushed into silt.

Surprises on the glacier’s surface included the massive chunks of jagged ice and the countless boulders swept up in the glacier’s downward movement. Most of them will fall into crevasses and be crushed into silt.

Another surprise was the river of melted ice running through the surface of the glacier. Ice-cold, of course. And clear and pure. Our guide did push-ups to dip her face into the water for a drink. Joe and I settled for scooping some up into our hands. Very refreshing.

Another surprise was the river of melted ice running through the surface of the glacier. Ice-cold, of course. And clear and pure. Our guide did push-ups to dip her face into the water for a drink. Joe and I settled for scooping some up into our hands. Extremely refreshing.

The guide shot a photo of Joe and me in front of an ice fall. The yellow things we wore are life vests, required for the helicopter flight.

The guide shot a photo of Joe and me in front of an ice fall. The yellow things we wore are life vests, required for the helicopter flight.

Thursday and Friday, we cruised by still more glaciers, first in Glacier Bay, then in College Fjord. We saw Margerie Glacier calving as huge chunks of ice would break away and fall into Glacier Bay as icebergs. The rumble as a piece cracked away is called “white thunder” and we heard it several times as the ship stopped for about an hour in front of the glacier.

Margery glacier

Margerie glacier

A closer view of Margery, though I was never quick enough to catch an iceberg "calving."

A closer view of Margerie, though I was never quick enough to catch an iceberg “calving.”

The last glacier we got a long look at. I didn't catch its name. We watched it from our balcony cabin, rather than from the deck, where a guide told about the glacier on loudspekers.

The last glacier we got a long look at. I didn’t catch its name. We watched it from our balcony cabin, rather than from the deck, where a guide told about the glacier on loudspeakers.

A closer look at our last glacier. It was here that we spotted our first bear, a black bear off to the right of the glacier. We got a pretty good look at him through binoculars, lumbering around down by the shore, though he was too far away for photos.

A closer look at our last glacier. It was here that we spotted our first bear, a black bear off to the right of the glacier. We got a pretty good look at him through binoculars, lumbering around down by the shore, though he was too far away for photos.

Wildlife

My companion and I have had many wonderful days traveling. Our Tundra Wilderness Tour of Denali National Park might have been the best.

After the cruise, the kids all flew home and my companion and I took the train up to Denali, about a nine-hour ride. We watched for wildlife along the way, spotting some Dall sheep on a mountainside, one moose and a distant bald eagle (that white head makes them easy to identify). We were just getting warmed up.

The Tundra Wilderness Tour was an upgrade from the park tour that was included in our trip to Denali. Mary Jane, our guide, started the bus ride by giving lots of disclaimers:

  • Only 30 percent of visitors get to see Mt. McKinley (Denali in the Athabasca language), because the massive mountain (North America’s highest point) generates its own weather, and that’s usually lots of clouds.
  • We would likely see some wildlife, but it’s extremely rare to see all of the “big five” of Denali wildlife: grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.
  • It would be especially rare for us to spot wolves. The wolf pack in Denali is down to 50, fewer wolves than people on our bus. And we’d be traveling on the single road through a park the size of the state of Massachusetts.

Well, we got the “ultimate grand slam”: bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep. In abundance. The sheep and moose were too distant for decent photographs, but we got surprisingly close to the grizzlies, wolves and caribou. And we got clear views of Denali (though the clouds had hidden it by the time we reached our tour’s closest point to the massive mountain).

Mt. McKinley, called Denali by the Athabasca.

Mt. McKinley, called Denali by the Athabasca.

We stopped for about 15-20 minutes to watch these three bears by the roadside. The largest is the mother bear with a couple cubs. Cubs stay with the mother for three years, and the guide estimated these cubs as 3-year-olds about ready for independence.

We stopped for about 15-20 minutes to watch these three bears by the roadside. The largest is the mother bear with a couple cubs. Cubs stay with the mother for three years, and the guide estimated these cubs as 3-year-olds about ready for independence.

After foraging for berries on the left side of the road for a while, the bears walked on the road for a while, then foraged some more on the right side.

After foraging for berries on the left side of the road for a while, the bears walked on the road, then foraged some more on the right side.

The other bears we saw were all by themselves and farther from the road.

The other bears we saw were all by themselves and farther from the road.

We didn't see this bear in the wild, just at the heliport. But it gives you an idea how big they can be. Joe's about 6'4".

We didn’t see this bear in the wild, just at the heliport. But it gives you an idea how big they can be. Joe’s about 6’4″.

Our coolest wildlife sighting was four wolves. I couldn't zoom enough to catch them clearly, but we got great views through binoculars and they were visible to the naked eye. You can see them here, though they are fuzzy. The white spot just right of center is an alpha female. When the guide first spotted them, she was with the two cubs you can see to the left with a larger wolf. The larger standing wolf is a male the guide first spotted crossing the road ahead of us, heading toward the other three. I couldn't get a good photo of him there (not as good an angle as I had with the bears), but watched him through the binoculars. When he was a hundred yards or so from the other wolves, he threw back his head and howled. The cubs started yipping and greeted him excitedly, jumping up at him and scampering around him. The guide said he was probably not the alpha male, but a young adult wolf. The female didn't get up to greet him, but he went to her and they licked each other's faces. This photo is the tail end of his homecoming celebration, with the cubs still scampering around him. I don't know if I've ever seen anything cooler.

Our coolest wildlife sighting was four wolves. I couldn’t zoom enough to catch them clearly, but we got great views through binoculars and they were visible to the naked eye. You can see them here, though they are fuzzy. The white spot just right of center is an alpha female. When the guide first spotted them, she was with the two cubs you can see to the left with a larger wolf. The larger standing wolf is a male the guide first spotted crossing the road ahead of us, heading toward the other three. I couldn’t get a good photo of him there (not as good an angle as I had with the bears), but watched him through the binoculars. When he was a hundred yards or so from the other wolves, he threw back his head and howled. The cubs started yipping and greeted him excitedly, jumping up at him and scampering around him. The guide said he was probably not the alpha male, but a young adult wolf. The female didn’t get up to greet him, but he went to her and they licked each other’s faces. This photo is the tail end of his homecoming celebration, with the cubs still scampering around him. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything cooler.

We saw more than a dozen caribou, some in groups, some solitary. This female was probably the closest.

We saw more than a dozen caribou, some in groups, some solitary. This female was probably the closest.

We got a close look at this bull caribou, too, but he was partly hidden.

We got a close look at this bull caribou, too, but he was partly hidden.

Even at a distance, this caribou looked majestic, standing atop the ridge. Mary Jane said they like places like this, where the wind keeps mosquitoes away.

Even at a distance, this caribou looked majestic, standing atop the ridge. Mary Jane said they like places like this, where the wind keeps mosquitoes away.

My companion at Polychrome Pass, named for the many colors of the mountains.

My companion at Polychrome Pass, named for the many colors of the mountains.

While no other wildlife matched what we saw in Denali, we saw plenty of other wildlife on the trip. We watched humpback whales from the deck of the ship as we passed through an area with a pretty heavy whale population, and various members of the party had random sightings throughout the trip. We also saw Dall’s porpoises and sea otters frolicking in the waves. My companion and Susie took a whale-watching tour while Joe and I were visiting the glacier. They saw lots of humpbacks, including one that breached about halfway. Neither of them was fast enough to catch a photo of that one, but Susie caught a nice picture of a fluke as one was diving.

Humpback whale diving off the coast of Juneau.

Humpback whale diving off the coast of Juneau.

In our first stop, Ketchikan, we could see salmon swimming upstream. Watching down from a bridge over rapids, occasionally you’d see a fish leaping above the foam. Above the rapids, if you looked carefully in still areas below, you’d see dozens of salmon resting for their assault on the next rapids. I wish I had a good enough camera and/or skills to catch them in action, but I don’t.

Salmon were leaping in here, just not any time I snapped a photo.

Salmon were leaping in here, just not any time I snapped a photo.

We saw several bald eagles, especially in Juneau. Joe, who was especially good at spotting them, saw a golden eagle, too. Joe shot better eagle photos with his long lens, I’m sure, than I did with my camera. Here was my best:

I wonder why an eagle would hang out around a fishery?

I wonder why an eagle would hang out around a fishery?

 The rest of the trip

We set out from Vancouver on a lovely Saturday evening.

We set out from Vancouver on a lovely Saturday evening.

The sunrise over British Columbia's coast started a lovely first day at sea.

The sunrise over British Columbia’s coast started a lovely first day at sea.

Clouds, sun and water presented spectacular sights throughout the cruise.

Clouds, sun and water presented spectacular sights throughout the cruise.

We found this sign in Ketchikan (where we saw the salmon). I've been hiking this trail 40 years.

We found this sign in Ketchikan (where we saw the salmon). I’ve been hiking this trail 40 years.

From Skagway, my companion and I took the Yukon Jeep Adventure, driving up into the Yukon Territory, including a bumpy off-road drive on Montana Mountain.

From Skagway, my companion and I took the Yukon Jeep Adventure, driving up into the Yukon Territory, including a bumpy off-road drive on Montana Mountain.

Our Yukon adventure took us to Carcross, where a local Tlingit artist's totem had recently been erected.

Our Yukon adventure took us to Carcross, where a local Tlingit artist’s totem had recently been erected.

Our last day on the water, the sun rose over open ocean, with no land in sight.

Our last day on the water, the sun rose over open ocean, with no land in sight.

Our train ride to Denali took us past the Turnagain arm, where glacial silt has filled much of the inlet, and at low tide you see vast expanses of mud.

Our train ride to Denali took us past the Turnagain Arm, where glacial silt has filled much of the inlet, and at low tide you see vast expanses of mud.

The train ride to Denali was nine hours of lovely scenery around every turn.

The train ride to Denali was nine hours of lovely scenery around every turn.

We got glimpses of Denali three days in a row. The day after our tour of Denali National Park, we took a bus a couple hours south to the McKinley Princess Lodge. That day we just got this tiny peek at the peak when the clouds parted briefly.

We got glimpses of Denali three days in a row. The day after our tour of Denali National Park, we took a bus a couple hours south to the McKinley Princess Lodge. That day we just got this tiny peek at the peak when the clouds parted briefly.

We got a better look at Denali the next day, though just briefly.

We got a better look at Denali the next day, though just briefly.

Our last night in Alaska, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, we got a nice farewell sunset.

Our last night in Alaska, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, we got a nice farewell sunset.

Thanks again to our wonderful family for this gift! We can’t wait to see what you have in mind for our 50th.

7 thoughts on “Our Alaska voyage: Fabulous time with family, wildlife and glaciers

  1. I congratulate you on 50 states. My father was always proud of the 48 he made, the ones he missed were not the ones you thought of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I have been to 41 but now have too much trouble getting around to figure I will make it to the rest

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