Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Vast Yukon Territory

At 186,600 square miles, the Yukon Territory is almost twice as large as the United Kingdom, yet its population is only 35,000. Although I never saw any bears or moose in the Yukon Territory, I was told that there is one bear and two moose for every person living there. On the morning of July 29, we were bound from Whitehorse to Dawson City, a distance of 340 miles, on the North Klondike Highway on a comfortable motorcoach owned by Holland America Line.

Along the way, our sharp-eyed and entertaining driver/guide, Mike Harris, spotted a bald eagle on a tree and came to a sudden stop to allow all of us to snap a picture. Shortly after that we stopped at the Braeburn Lodge, where some of us indulged in the largest cinnamon rolls I've ever seen. If you're ever there and dare to try one of their monster buns, ask for them to be served warm with butter. We also stopped at Five Finger Rapids, the most dangerous part of the Yukon River. The deadly Five Finger Rapids were named for the four rock islands that split the river into five dangerous channels and many Klondike Gold Rush stampeders lost their lives when their makeshift boats hit these treacherous rapids in 1898. However, on this beautiful summer day in 2010, the Five Finger Rapids didn't present us with any obstacles as we jockeyed for position to take a great photo. Later in the afternoon we stopped at Moose Creek Lodge for a short break. Population of Moose Creek: 2 great guys and gals and 3 friendly dogs.

We were lucky to have two days in Dawson City as it gave Steve and I the opportunity to hike in Tombstone Territorial Park and to attend the bi-annual Moosehide Gathering. Although we wanted to see wildlife in Tombstone Territorial Park, it was a beautiful walk despite the fact that we didn't see any animals. Our guide was knowledgeable about the flora and customs of The Yukon's First Nations people. They were a very resourceful people who were familiar with the medicinal qualities of plants, understood that moose scat could be used to kindle a fire and used the super absorbent sphagnum moss as diapers for their infants. Our guide told us that they compared quaking aspen to a woman's tongue. Gold was of no practical use to The Yukon's First Nations people so they must have been particularly bewildered by the disease known as "gold fever."

During the Klondike Gold Rush, the First Nations people of the area were disregarded as their land, culture, and way of life were a hindrance to those seeking riches. As thousands flocked to the area and overran Tr'ochëk, a First Nation fishing camp where Dawson City was founded, Chief Isaac, then the leader of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, made arrangements for his people to move five kilometers downriver to a settlement named Moosehide. Today, Moosehide remains a place of rest and refuge for the descendants of these displaced people and it was where Steve and I attended the bi-annual Moosehide Gathering.

Although the Moosehide Gathering is primarily a celebration of the heritage of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, everybody is invited to the party. Steve and I made our way to the boat ramp and were given a short ride downstream to Moosehide where the people were friendly and the salmon was delicious. During dinner, we met Mabel, a First Nations woman who was from the town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Mabel was visiting Moosehide to research her family tree. She told us that her mother was often asked by the local radio station to tell stories about days gone by. I wish I had remembered to ask Mabel why her people compared a quaking aspen to a woman's tongue. I bet it would have been a good story.

Compared to southeastern Alaska, which is teeming with tourists, the Yukon Territory is an undiscovered gem with a hugh personality. Dawson City still bustles with the rebellious and wild spirit of the gold rush, and thanks to its designation as a National Historic Site in the early 1960s, its boardwalk-lined streets and historic buildings remain largely unchanged.

When I asked how cold it gets in Dawson City during the winter, a local replied, "Cold enough for your spit to freeze before it hits the ground."

More photos of the Yukon Territory

Thursday, August 26, 2010

All Aboard the White Pass Scenic Railroad

One of the most popular shore excursions from Skagway is a trip on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, known as "The Scenic Railway of the World" and "The Railway Built of Gold." After taking the 67 mile rail journey from Skagway to Carcross, Yukon Territory, I can honestly say that this is one shore excursion you don't want to miss if the weather is halfway decent. If it's raining and foggy, you won't see much. But we got lucky with the weather.

It was fascinating to travel back in time to the days of the gold rush on this legendary narrow gauge steam train. As we traveled, our train conductor relayed some interesting tales of lust for gold. Historians estimate that 100,000 left their homes and started for the Klondike in 1897 and 1898. They were in such a hurry they earned the sobriquet, "The Stampeders." Of the 100,000 brave souls who went for broke, only 30,000 to 40,000 actually reached the gold fields of the Klondike. Four thousand prospectors found the gold but only a few hundred struck it rich.

The ordeal that the stampeders endured to get to the gold fields was harrowing. Once they reached Skagway, they had to choose between The White Pass or the Chilkoot Trail to get over the Coast Range. Either way, they were required by the Northwest Mounted Police to be fully equipped to spend a year in the great north. Dried foods and medicines, picks and shovels, sleds and stoves amounted to a ton of goods for each person and it all had to be packed in relays over mountain passes in the dead of winter. And God help them if they fell off the trail. The lucky ones somehow managed to get back on after waiting for hours for a break in the trail and the not-so-fortunate were buried by snow. Remnants of the trail are shown in the photo to the right. The poet Robert Service wrote:
Never will I forget it, there on the mountain face.
Antlike, men with their burdens, clinging in icy space.
All I can say is I was very happy to be going over the White Pass by train effortlessly gliding over deep gorges and along sheer cliffs while admiring some gorgeous scenery.

Once they got over the White Pass and reached Bennett Lake, the stampeders then had to hammer together a fleet of over 7,000 boats to take them through five sets of seething rapids that punctuated the final 600 miles through a series of lakes and rivers to Dawson City. I swore the next time I found myself on a seemingly unbearable plane ride across the Atlantic I would think about the grit and determination of the stampeders, ask for another glass of wine and just grin and bear it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Colorful Skagway

Skagway was the most colorful town that we visited in Alaska with an interesting rough-and-tumble history. Legend has it that Captain William Moore was the man who purchased the land in 1887 that would later become the famous gold rush town of Skagway. Gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896 and by 1897, the first boatland of prospectors landed in Skagway. By October 1897, Skagway had grown to a fair-sized town with well-laid out streets, buildings with "false fronts," stores, saloons, gambling houses, houses of "negotiable affection" and a population of 20,000. By 1900, its population had shrunk to 3,117. Today, its population is 850 in the winter, 3,000 in the summer and 700,000 cruise passengers visiting between May and September. I didn't count the number of jewelry stores in town but there were a lot. It is an interesting site to behold four large cruise ships in port.

During our morning bus tour, we heard a lot about the con man Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith and how he and his gang of thugs reigned over Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 and 1898. Soapy, Miss Belle Davenport and her "soiled doves," Alice and Molly were the colorful characters you could find hanging out at Jeff's Parlor during those wild times. Steve and I were rather intrigued by the story so we decided to go to the stage production, "The Days of '98 Show" which was featured at Eagles Hall at 6th & Broadway. At the show, we relived the days of saloons, dance halls, shootouts, lynch mobs, floozies and Can Can girls and it was fun.

It was absolutely hilarious when Squirrel-Tooth Alice and Molly Phewclothes came down into the audience and chose my dear Steve as their prize. My shy and unassuming Steve was made to go upstairs with the lovely ladies where he put on a garish dressing gown and was brought back on stage to be fawned over and kissed. I actually wondered whether they taught him anything new. For his efforts, Steve was awarded Soapy Smith's Whorehouse Achievement Award for Service Above and Beyond the Call of the Wild.

All kidding aside, Steve and I did enjoy the free walking tour of the Skagway Historic District which was guided by a ranger from the Klondike National Historical Park Service. She was obviously proud of the National Park Service's achievement in preserving many of the buildings from the gold rush period. I could just imagine myself being there giving Soapy Smith a very hard time.

More photos of Skagway

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tracy Arm Fjord and the Sawyer Glacier

Large cruise ships have many advantages but they often can't access sites that smaller ships can more easily navigate. Holland America Line's ms Zuiderdam is a beautiful ship but was too big to take us to Sawyer Glacier, a spectacular glacier that lies at the end of Tracy Arm. Therefore, Steve and I decided to sign up for the Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer shore excursion on which we would board a 150-passenger catamaran that pulled up alongside the ms Zuiderdam.

We entered Tracy Arm Fjord in the early morning and were welcomed by steep mountain walls that rise up dramatically from the water to 7,000 feet. The landscape was carved by the power of ice, a dynamic process that continues to this day. Although Tracy Arm Fjord is 32 miles long, I believe that the ms Zuiderdam could travel only about 10 miles to the section known as the "big bend," a dramatic 90-degree turn in the fjord's course from north to east. It was at this point that Steve and I debarked the ms Zuiderdam and boarded the 150-passenger catamaran that allowed us to have a close up and personal experience with the Sawyer Glacier. Thank God I bundled up with ski jacket, gloves, scarf and hat because it was cold.

The Sawyer Glacier is 200 feet wide, awe-inspiring and lustrous blue. Although we were 1/4 mile from the glacier's face I felt like I could reach out and touch it. The captain of our ship turned the catamaran continuously so that everyone aboard had the opportunity to view it in all of its majesty. We admired the glacier for around 45 minutes and during that time it calved four times. We heard the distinctive crackle of ice breaking followed by a splashy display. Wow!

Our guides repeatedly told us how lucky we were that the sun was out as it had been a particularly challenging summer as far as weather is concerned. Most of the time, Tracy Arm Fjord is overcast if not raining and it would be difficult to see how truly dramatic this near-vertical landscape is if clouds were covering the tops of the mountains. To truly appreciate the magnificence of Tracy Arm Fjord you must view it from the deck instead of from inside the ship but if it's pouring rain it won't nearly be as much fun as it was in the sunshine.

We also got the opportunity to see harbor seals sunbathing on the ice floes without a care in the world; the ice floes are havens from shore predators and whales are rarely seen inside Tracy Arm. Speaking of whales, we spotted some humpback whales in Stephens Passage on our way to Juneau where we re-boarded the ms Zuiderdam.

More photos of Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glacier

Below is a video of Sawyer glacier calving:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alaska Bound on Holland America Line's ms Zuiderdam

Our 13-day cruisetour to Alaska actually began on the Amtrak Cascades in Seattle, which was a very comfortable four-hour ride to Vancouver. We were seated on the left side of the train which gave us a great view of the water. For $118.50, Steve and I sat in business class where we had wider seats with more legroom and priority boarding and detraining. Another advantage is that we had a coupon for $3 off any menu item and were in the car next to the dining car. Anybody who knows me understands that food is never very far from my mind. Business class only cost $36 more for the two of us and was definitely worth it.

From the Vancouver train station, we hopped in a taxi to Canada Place to board the ms Zuiderdam and the embarkation process was very smooth. After boarding any cruise ship, I make it a point to go on the ship tour if it's offered because I often discover some "secret" cozy corner of the ship where I can view the passing scenery in relative peace and quiet. This time, I learned that there is an iPod tour of the works of art aboard the ms Zuiderdam available to passengers. I also learned that Holland America no longer provides trays at the buffet in order to decrease the amount of food wasted.

Departing Canada Place and cruising under the Lions Gate Bridge is magnificent on a sunny day. I enjoyed watching Vancouver's skyline recede in the distance as sea planes landed near us.

Since this was a 13-day cruisetour that included only three days aboard the ms Zuiderdam, I didn't have much time to really get to know her. Being the foodies we are, Steve and I try every dining venue available. On our first night, we dined at the Pinnacle Grill, Holland America's elegant alternative restaurant which costs $20 per person and is worth every penny. We savored our filet mignon which was prepared to perfection (rare in our case). The icing on the cake was the chocolate soufflé with Grand Marnier sauce. Given that it was the first night of the cruise we practically had the Pinnacle Grill to ourselves.

On our second night, we enjoyed lamb at the Vista Dining Room. On our third and final evening aboard the ms Zuiderdam we went to the Caneletto Restaurant, which is located inside the Lido Restaurant and offers Italian cuisine. Although the Caneletto has the ambiance of an Italian trattoria and was very charming, the white fish we had was disappointing. The best part of the meal was the interesting conversation we had with the Ukrainian couple seated next to us and another opportunity to watch a seaplane land -- this time in Juneau.

On board, I purchased a book called The Alaska Cruise Handbook by Joe Upton. It is a great read and includes a 22" x 34" illustrated map of the routes of the major cruise lines. Many of the cruise lines, including Holland America, use Joe Upton's numerical navigation system to announce their position while cruising. It's better if you read it before your Alaska cruise rather than after you return home as Joe Upton gives a lot of tips about the beautiful sites you will see and when you will see them. If you know ahead of time, you can stake a great position on deck.

More photos of the ms Zuiderdam on the way to Alaska

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Breathtaking Glacier Landing on Denali

I recently returned from a 13-day cruisetour in Alaska where I had many adventures. But the one I'm most likely to be talking about for the rest of my life is my breathtaking glacier landing on Denali.

Our plane was a robust de Havilland Turbo Beaver on wheel skis operated by Fly Denali, Inc. ( that looked like it could handle the rigorous flying conditions of the Alaska wilderness. Since I am a licensed private pilot, I was happy to be ushered into the co-pilot seat.

Shortly after we took off, I could see the magnificent Denali looming in the distance. It was hard to believe that it was over 65 miles away. Our pilot, Bruce Minter, gave us many opportunities to take photos of Denali as he turned the plane so that everyone could get the perfect angle on “The High One.” We were flying at 12,000 feet as we approached the South Peak of Denali and I was awestruck by the gorgeous scenery—, rugged peaks, dancing clouds, sheer cliffs decorated with flowing bands of snow and gorges on which glaciers seemed to drift restlessly.

After several minutes of skirting the clouds looking for an opening to Ruth Glacier, Bruce decided to look for an opening to Eldridge Glacier, our alternative landing site. This didn’t look promising either and after consulting with other pilots flying around Denali, he decided to approach Ruth Glacier from a different direction. Bruce was bound and determined to give us the glacier landing we were all longing for and to do it safely. Throughout all of this maneuvering I was struck by how calm it was in the Alaska Range. Given my experience flying in the Sierras around Lake Tahoe where I often encountered turbulence, I was surprised at how smoothly we cruised in this mountainous terrain.

As we descended under the clouds on approach to landing on Ruth Glacier, which is located on the south side of Denali, I felt like we were on the dark side of the moon. Bruce told us that one of his prior passengers had compared it to Jurassic Park and the description seemed to fit. It was a cool 40ºF when we exited the plane into the deep snow. Even with the snow boots that Fly Denali had provided us, it was difficult to walk steadily or gracefully. Nobody cared as we were all giddy about just being there.

More photos of my flight to Denali