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My Alaska Travelogue

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Below the fold is my day-by-day observations about my Alaska Cruise, complete with pictures.  It’s stuck below the fold so it won’t take up the whole front page, and you can skip over it easily.

Click on the pictures to enlarge.

11 September, 2009

I didn’t really want to fly to Seattle on 9/11. Actually I don’t really want to fly at all, at any time, since there’s nothing about flying that I enjoy. But flying on 9/11 just seemed.creepy.

As it turned out, though, it was fine. Originally, we were scheduled to leave San Diego at about 5:00pm, transfer from a commuter flight to Alaska Airlines at LAX, and eventually arrive in Seattle at around 11:00pm. But, we got to Lindbergh Field early, and they were able to put us on a commuter flight to LAX at 3:30pm. When we landed at LAX, Alaska Airlines had a flight to Seattle leaving immediately, with space available to fly on standby. So, we ended up getting there at about 7:00pm.

Our original plan was to catch a free shuttle from Sea-Tac to our hotel, then a shuttle the next day to downtown Seattle, then being on foot for the rest of the weekend, and finally catching a shuttle to the cruise terminal to get on board our ship. Somewhere along the way to Seattle, I decided that was stupid, so we rented a car with GPS navigation when we got to Sea-Tac. That made the weekend a lot easier, and gave us freedom to go anywhere and do anything we wanted to do.

One thing about the people in Seattle was immediately evident. The people there are friendly. Coming from Southern California, this was a bit of a shock. Strangers would open doors for you and smile, telling you to go ahead of them. Chris and I had the usual Californian reaction, which was to wonder what kind of subtle game they were playing. Why were they being so nice? What did they want from us?

12 September, 2009

Downtown Seattle as seen from the Space Needle

Downtown Seattle as seen from the Space Needle

We spent the day driving around Seattle, taking pictures and video.

Seattle is a beautiful city, but, man, I’m glad we got a navigation unit in our rental car. In southern California, there are highly visible landmarks–mountains, mainly, that are visible from miles away. In Seattle, there are landmarks, too, you just can’t see them because you’re surrounded by trees. So, the Garmin unit was invaluable in showing us how to get to wherever we wanted to go.

We went to the Space Needle, of course, as well as the Pike Street “Sanitary Public Market”, and topped off the day with a trip across the Seattle Bridge to shoot pics of the city skyline from across Puget Sound.

We also had to take care of a small bit of business. After taking some pictures with our new Canon 50D cameras, I realized that the 15 megapixel images were twice as large as the 8 megapixel images from our old 20Ds. So, It occurred to me that I should have brought an external hard drive, in addition to my laptop. We stopped at Radio Shack and got a 1 terabyte external hard drive for $129. Since we ended up with over 10,000 pictures and 4.5 hours of video, that turned out to be necessary purchase.

13 September, 2009

The MS Westerdam

The MS Westerdam

After a good old IHOP breakfast we dropped the car off downtown, and took their free shuttle to the cruise terminal.

I was afraid that the cruise terminal would be a madhouse, but despite the fact that there were two cruise ships loading, with 4,000 passengers waiting to go aboard, it was really organized quite well. Unlike the TSA guys at the airport, the security people at the terminal were Holland America Line employees. As such they were courteous, helpful, friendly, and efficient. We went through the same security screening they do at the airport, but we went through it a lot faster.

After going through security, we presented our passports and boarding passes at the check-in counter. They took our pictures and printed up our stateroom security cardkeys, and gave them to us. We went out the terminal exit, bypassed the long line of tourists waiting to have their boarding pictures taken (for later purchase), and went straight up the gangplank into our ship, the MS Westerdam.

Our Stateroom on the MS Westerdam

Our Stateroom on the MS Westerdam

We were in Stateroom 6107. Nice stateroom. The bathroom had both a shower and a bathtub with Jacuzzi. The main stateroom had a queen-sized bed, a nice leather couch, three closets with configurable shelves, two desks, and a nice flat-screen TV. There was also a soundproofed glass door leading to a verandah, which had a small breakfast table and chairs, as well as two wicker easy chairs with ottomans.

We went up to the observation deck on Deck 10 for departing Seattle.

The next two days were spent at sea, so we explored the ship, drank drinks, ate lots of food, and generally relaxed.

I learned two things: 1) the employees of Holland America Line are serious about customer service. If you ask for something, they will produce it for you with a smile, if there’s any way possible to do it, and 2) The bartender in the Ocean Bar on Deck 3 made the best mojitos on the ship. Unlike other bartenders, he knew that it is vitally important to thoroughly crush the mint leaves before adding the rum. I cannot stress this enough. Failure to properly crush the mint deprives you of the appropriate mint/lime balance that makes or breaks the mojito.

Speaking of the employees, there was an interesting distinction between the officers and the “enlisted men”. All of the low-level employees were mainly from Indonesia. Presumably this is because as a former Dutch colony, Indonesia has some sort of hiring preference with Holland America. Anyone with gold rings on their sleeves, however, generally had last names like Koopman or De Ruyter. The captain, of course, was Henk Keijer, which is about as Dutch as you can get. I enjoyed going down to the front desk and speaking to them in Dutch. It was my little treat for them.

15 September, 2009

Whale in Glacier Bay

Whale in Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay was pretty cool. We saw whales at the entrance of the bay. We saw an Alskan Brown bear–which is essentially a mutant-sized Grizzly Bear–wandering around on shore. There were seals sitting on some of the icebergs.

The glaciers themselves are pretty impressive. I imagine they were a lot more impressing 150 years ago, but they’ve been retreating since the height of the Little Ice Age in 1750. Back then there was no Glacier Bay. It was entirely filled by a huge glacier that went a couple of miles out into the Pacific. So, I guess back then, instead of Glacier Bay, they just called it.Glacier. Now, the glaciers have all retreated into a number of smaller glaciers at the north end of the bay.

The water in the bay is a weird, opaque, tourquoise-green from all the stuff deposited in the bay from the glaciers.

We spent the entire day cruising all the way to the north end of the bay, then went back south towards Juneau.

16 September, 2009

Alaska State Capitol in Juneau

Alaska State Capitol in Juneau

Downtown Juneau is a hole. It’s this grungy city nestled in the midst of natural beauty and magnificence. I now know why Sarah Palin quit as Governor. If I had to spend a significant amount of time there, I wouldn’t just quit my job, I’d probably slit my wrists.

One of the reasons–the main reason actually–the place is so grungy is that the environment is just.harsh. The place is regularly drenched with rain. And the vegetation is viciously fecund. If you have a shingle or wood shake roof, it just gets attacked by lichen, moss, fungus, and whatnot, which means you have to regularly replace the roof. So lots of small buildings and houses have corrugated aluminum roofs. It prevents the attack of the killer vegetation. Bigger buildings tend to be made of solid brick if they’re older, or concrete tilt-wall if they’re newer. So, you get the overall impression from Downtown of military bunkers surrounded by an upscale shanty town.

The rest of the city seems pretty nice, though, with large, modern houses peeking out of forests or expansive lawns. I bet home maintenance takes up an inordinate amount of time, and is a constant battle against the wet and the vegetation.

If you’re on foot in Juneau, like were were, getting around there is like going on a Bataan Death March. The city is built right into the side of a mountain, so everything is up at the top of some nasty hill, or at the bottom of some awful rift valley. So you have to haul yourself up a thousand flights of stairs that are used for sidewalks, then back down again, and then back up again. And you have to do this with rain just pouring down on you while you trudge through the hills.

And it’s worth it. Because every once and awhile, you find this salmon-filled stream at the bottom of a valley, or you get a scenic viewpoint at the top of a hill where you can see the whole bay spread out below you, and the mountains on the other side soaring off into the sky.

Then you go back to the ship and collapse in exhaustion.

17 September, 2009

Salmon spawning in Sitka

Salmon spawning in Sitka

Sitka is the site where the Russians killed a bunch of natives in 1804, and set up a town called Novy Archangelsk. The Russian Bishop’s place is still there. It became the capitol of Russian Alaska, and was called “the Paris of the north.” And it is remarkably like Paris. Or rather, how Paris would be if it was a remote fishing village of about 5,000 people in the middle of a temperate rain forest. It’s actually a pretty little place, which is, once again, in a fantastically beautiful and wild natural setting.

The really cool thing about Sitka was that, while we were wandering through the park at one end of the city, we came across a little stream. It was literally chocked with salmon. They were everywhere, swimming and splashing, and spawning.and dying. There were thousands upon thousands of salmon there, and you could stand inches away from them and watch. You could fish by just reaching down and grabbing them, and tossing them on shore.

There were also a lot of seagulls there, trying to find some salmon eggs buried in the bottom of the stream, or snacking on the dead salmon that were floating at the edges of the stream.

It was an amazing thing to see.

18 September 2009

Creek Street in downtown Ketchikan, Alaska

Creek Street in downtown Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan, Alaska is where the famous bridge to nowhere was supposed to be built. We saw the place where it was supposed to be constructed, crossing over the Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, where the airport–and about 50 inhabitants–is located. The bridge was supposed to cost $315 million, before the project was killed. Because that part of the inside passage is part of the Alaska Marine Highway, the plans were for it to be tall enough to allow cargo and cruise ships to pass under it safely.

The thing is, though, is that Ketchikan cannot be reached by land. It can only be reached by boat or airplane. So the whole point of the project was to build a bridge to connect one remote island that can only be reached by air or sea, to another remote island that can only be reached by air or sea. And spend a third of a billion dollars to do it.

They’ve already got a ferry service that runs every 15-30 minutes depending on the time of year. Practically everybody has a boat. So, now that I’ve been there and seen the place, I guess that cancelling the bridge was a good thing. Call me a selfish jerk, but you don’t get to choose to live on a remote island and then demand my tax money to build you a bridge, because living on a remote island is inconvenient.

Everything in Ketchikan–except for the fish you might eat there–has to be brought in by ship. They have a container port there for importing the food and consumer goods that the inhabitants consume. That makes stuff kind of expensive there.

They do have two motorcycle dealerships, though, one of them being Inside Passage Harley-Davidson, the other being a Polaris/Victory/Yamaha dealer.

So.where do they ride? It’s an island, with about 14,000 people on it. It takes about three days to ride every available road on the island, a number of which are potholed and cracked. And, of course, it’s a rain forest, so it’s pretty much raining most of the time. Motorcycle riding there must be a hoot.

Salmon running on Creek Street

Salmon running on Creek Street

Downtown Ketchikan is centered on Creek Street. It’s called that because all of the buildings on Creek Street are built on pilings over the creek. Since the salmon were running, the creek was filled with them. It’s a fairly deep creek, and I’d say that the average spacing between salmon was 8 to 12 inches. There’s a salmon ladder built at the upper end of Creek Street, so the salmon were all swimming up to the ladder to climb up the creek. Again, it was an amazing sight.

The residents, however, say that once the salmon spawning is over, the salmon all die and their bodies choke up the stream, and lie there rotting in the creek. So they get to smell rotting fish from October to January.

Creek Street was also where the city’s red light district was located until Alaska became a state in 1959.  The house of Ketchikan’s long-time madame, Dolly’s House, is now a little museum.  When Alaska became a state, she was forced to retire from the business, but prior to that, Creek Street was known as the place where more husbands went to spawn than salmon.  The salmon pretty much own it now, though.

19 September 2009

Empress Hotel, Victoria BC

Empress Hotel, Victoria BC

Victoria is the capital of British Columbia. It’s very pretty. Since we only spent 4 hours there, I don’t have much to say about it. Like most western Canadian cities, it’s kind of hard to tell you’re in Canada by just looking at it. And the inhabitants don’t have that Bob & Doug Mackenzie accent you hear back East. Basically, Victoria is like an American city with prettier money, and occasional odd spelling on street signs.

The inner harbor is quite pretty, with the Empress Hotel, where the Queen stays when she goes there, on one side, and the parliament house on the other.

One thing they have in Canada that we don’t have here is real Cuban cigars.  And, as it happens, there was a tobacconist open in Victoria.  I dropped 30 bucks on an H. Upmann Cubano, and when we got back to the ship, I spent a pleasant hour on the cabin verandah, getting rid of it before we got back to the USA.

20 September, 2009

And, we’re now back in Seattle.

It was a great cruise, and we had a lot of fun. Alaska is wild and beautiful. There’s so much more I could write about, but this already lengthy, So I guess I have to stop here.

I didn’t really want to fly to Seattle on 9/11.  Actually I don’t really want to fly at all, at any time, since there’s nothing about flying that I enjoy. But flying on 9/11 just seemed.creepy.

As it turned out, though, it was fine.  Originally, we were scheduled to leave San Diego at about 5:00pm, transfer from a commuter flight to Alaska Airlines at LAX, and eventually arrive in Seattle at around 11:00pm.  But, we got to Lindbergh Field early, and they were able to put us on a commuter flight to LAX at 3:30pm.  When we landed at LAX, Alaska Airlines had a flight to Seattle leaving immediately, with space available to fly on standby.  So, we ended up getting there at about 7:00pm.

Our original plan was to catch a free shuttle from Sea-Tac to our hotel, then a shuttle the next day to downtown Seattle, then being on foot for the rest of the weekend, and finally catching a shuttle to the cruise terminal to get on board our ship.  Somewhere along the way to Seattle, I decided that was stupid, so we rented a car with GPS navigation when we got to Sea-Tac.  That made the weekend a lot easier, and gave us freedom to go anywhere and do anything we wanted to do.

One thing about the people in Seattle was immediately evident.  The people there are friendly.  Coming from Southern California, this was a bit of a shock.  Strangers would open doors for you and smile, telling you to go ahead of them.  Chris and I had the usual Californian reaction, which was to wonder what kind of subtle game they were playing.  Why were they being so nice?  What did they want from us?

We spent the day driving around Seattle, taking pictures and video.

Seattle is a beautiful city, but, man, I’m glad we got a navigation unit in our rental car.  In southern California, there are highly visible landmarks–mountains, mainly, that are visible from miles away.  In Seattle, there are landmarks, too, you just can’t see them because you’re surrounded by trees.  So, the Garmin unit was invaluable in showing us how to get to wherever we wanted to go.

We went to the Space Needle, of course, as well as the Pike Street “Sanitary Public Market”, and topped off the day with a trip across the Seattle Bridge to shoot pics of the city skyline from across Puget Sound.

We also had to take care of a small bit of business.  After taking some pictures with our new Canon 50D cameras, I realized that the 15 megapixel images were twice as large as the 8 megapixel images from our old 20Ds.  So, It occurred to me that I should have brought an external hard drive, in addition to my laptop.  We stopped at Radio Shack and got a 1 terabyte external hard drive for $129.  Since we ended up with over 10,000 pictures and 4.5 hours of video, that turned out to be necessary purchase.

After a good old IHOP breakfast we dropped the car off downtown, and took their free shuttle to the cruise terminal.

I was afraid that the cruise terminal would be a madhouse, but despite the fact that there were two cruise ships loading, with 4,000 passengers waiting to go aboard, it was really organized quite well.  Unlike the TSA guys at the airport, the security people at the terminal were Holland America Line employees.  As such they were courteous, helpful, friendly, and efficient.  We went through the same security screening they do at the airport, but we went through it a lot faster.

After going through security, we presented our passports and boarding passes at the check-in counter.  They took our pictures and printed up our stateroom security cardkeys, and gave them to us.  We went out the terminal exit, bypassed the long line of tourists waiting to have their boarding pictures taken (for later purchase), and went straight up the gangplank into our ship, the MS Westerdam.

We were in Stateroom 6107.  Nice stateroom.  The bathroom had both a shower and a bathtub with Jacuzzi. The main stateroom had a queen-sized bed, a nice leather couch, three closets with configurable shelves, two desks, and a nice flat-screen TV.  There was also a soundproofed glass door leading to a verandah, which had a small breakfast table and chairs, as well as two wicker easy chairs with ottomans.

We went up to the observation deck on Deck 10 for departing Seattle.

The next two days were spent at sea, so we explored the ship, drank drinks, ate lots of food, and generally relaxed.

I learned two things: 1) the employees of Holland America Line are serious about customer service.  If you ask for something, they will produce it for you with a smile, if there’s any way possible to do it, and 2) The bartender in the Ocean Bar on Deck 3 made the best mojitos on the ship.  Unlike other bartenders, he knew that it is vitally important to thoroughly crush the mint leaves before adding the rum.  I cannot stress this enough.  Failure to properly crush the mint deprives you of the appropriate mint/lime balance that makes or breaks the mojito.

Speaking of the employees, there was an interesting distinction between the officers and the “enlisted men”.  All of the low-level employees were mainly from Indonesia.  Presumably this is because as a former Dutch colony, Indonesia has some sort of hiring preference with Holland America.  Anyone with gold rings on their sleeves, however, generally had last names like Koopman or De Ruyter.  The captain, of course, was Henk Keijer, which is about as Dutch as you can get.  I enjoyed going down to the front desk and speaking to them in Dutch.  It was my little treat for them.

Glacier Bay was pretty cool.  We saw whales at the entrance of the bay.  We saw an Alskan Brown bear–which is essentially a mutant-sized Grizzly Bear–wandering around on shore.  There were seals sitting on some of the icebergs.

The glaciers themselves are pretty impressive.  I imagine they were a lot more impressing 150 years ago, but they’ve been retreating since the height of the Little Ice Age in 1750.  Back then there was no Glacier Bay.  It was entirely filled by a huge glacier that went a couple of miles out into the Pacific.  So, I guess back then, instead of Glacier Bay, they just called it.Glacier.  Now, the glaciers have all retreated into a number of smaller glaciers at the north end of the bay.

The water in the bay is a weird, opaque, tourquoise-green from all the stuff deposited in the bay from the glaciers.

We spent the entire day cruising all the way to the north end of the bay, then went back south towards Juneau.

Downtown Juneau is a hole.  It’s this grungy city nestled in the midst of natural beauty and magnificence.  I now know why Sarah Palin quit as Governor.  If I had to spend a significant amount of time there, I wouldn’t just quit my job, I’d probably slit my wrists.

One of the reasons–the main reason actually–the place is so grungy is that the environment is just.harsh.  The place is regularly drenched with rain.  And the vegetation is viciously fecund.  If you have a shingle or wood shake roof, it just gets attacked by lichen, moss, fungus, and whatnot, which means you have to regularly replace the roof.  So lots of small buildings and houses have corrugated aluminum roofs.  It prevents the attack of the killer vegetation. Bigger buildings tend to be made of solid brick if they’re older, or concrete tilt-wall if they’re newer.   So, you get the overall impression from Downtown of military bunkers surrounded by an upscale shanty town.

The rest of the city seems pretty nice, though, with large, modern houses peeking out of forests or expansive lawns.  I bet home maintenance takes up an inordinate amount of time, and is a constant battle against the wet and the vegetation.

If you’re on foot in Juneau, like were were, getting around there is like going on a Bataan Death March.  The city is built right into the side of a mountain, so everything is up at the top of some nasty hill, or at the bottom of some awful rift valley.  So you have to haul yourself up a thousand flights of stairs that are used for sidewalks, then back down again, and then back up again.  And you have to do this with rain just pouring down on you while you trudge through the hills.

And it’s worth it.  Because every once and awhile, you find this salmon-filled stream at the bottom of a valley, or you get a scenic viewpoint at the top of a hill where you can see the whole bay spread out below you, and the mountains on the other side soaring off into the sky.

Then you go back to the ship and collapse in exhaustion.

Sitka is the site where the Russians killed a bunch of natives in 1804, and set up a town called Novy Archangelsk.  The Russian Bishop’s place is still there.  It became the capitol of Russian Alaska, and was called “the Paris of the north.”  And it is remarkably like Paris.  Or rather, how Paris would be if it was a remote fishing village of about 5,000 people in the middle of a temperate rain forest.  It’s actually a pretty little place, which is, once again, in a fantastically beautiful and wild natural setting.

The really cool thing about Sitka was that, while we were wandering through the park at one end of the city, we came across a little stream.  It was literally chocked with salmon.  They were everywhere, swimming and splashing, and spawning.and dying.  There were thousands upon thousands of salmon there, and you could stand inches away from them and watch.  You could fish by just reaching down and grabbing them, and tossing them on shore.

There were also a lot of seagulls there, trying to find some salmon eggs buried in the bottom of the stream, or snacking on the dead salmon that were floating at the edges of the stream.

It was an amazing thing to see.

Ketchikan, Alaska is where the famous bridge to nowhere was supposed to be built.  We saw the place where it was supposed to be constructed, crossing over the Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, where the airport–and about 50 inhabitants–is located.  The bridge was supposed to cost $315 million, before the project was killed.  Because that part of the inside passage is part of the Alaska Marine Highway, the plans were for it to be tall enough to allow cargo and cruise ships to pass under it safely.

The thing is, though, is that Ketchikan cannot be reached by land.  It can only be reached by boat or airplane.  So the whole point of the project was to build a bridge to connect one remote island that can only be reached by air or sea, to another remote island that can only be reached by air or sea.  And spend a third of a billion dollars to do it.

They’ve already got a ferry service that runs every 15-30 minutes depending on the time of year.  Practically everybody has a boat.  So, now that I’ve been there and seen the place, I guess that cancelling the bridge was a good thing.  Call me a selfish jerk, but you don’t get to choose to live on a remote island and then demand my tax money to build you a bridge, because living on a remote island is inconvenient.

Everything in Ketchikan–except for the fish you might eat there–has to be brought in by ship.  They have a container port there for importing the food and consumer goods that the inhabitants consume.  That makes stuff kind of expensive there.

They do have two motorcycle dealerships, though, one of them being Inside Passage Harley-Davidson, the other being a Polaris/Victory/Yamaha dealer.

So.where do they ride?  It’s an island, with about 14,000 people on it.  It takes about three days to ride every available road on the island, a number of which are potholed and cracked.  And, of course, it’s a rain forest, so it’s pretty much raining most of the time.  Motorcycle riding there must be a hoot.

Downtown Ketchikan is centered on Creek Street.  It’s called that because all of the buildings on Creek Street are built on pilings over the creek.  Since the salmon were running, the creek was filled with them.  It’s a fairly deep creek, and I’d say that the average spacing between salmon was 8 to 12 inches.  There’s a salmon ladder built at the upper end of Creek Street, so the salmon were all swimming up to the ladder to climb up the creek.  Again, it was an amazing sight.

The residents, however, say that once the salmon spawning is over, the salmon all die and their bodies choke up the stream, and lie there rotting in the creek.  So they get to smell rotting fish from October to January.

Victoria is the capital of British Columbia.  It’s very pretty.  Since we only spent 4 hours there, I don’t have much to say about it.  Like most western Canadian cities, it’s kind of hard to tell you’re in Canada by just looking at it.  And the inhabitants don’t have that Bob & Doug Mackenzie accent you hear back East.  Basically, Victoria is like an American city with prettier money, and occasional odd spelling on street signs.

And, we’re now back in Seattle.

It was a great cruise, and we had a lot of fun.  Alaska is wild and beautiful.  There’s so much more I could write about, but this already lengthy, So I guess I have to stop here.

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