For her 70th birthday, my sister graciously invited my wife and me to accompany her on a week long cruise to Alaska. Ten years ago for her 60th, we hiked down into the Grand Canyon and spent several nights in a rustic motel run by local Native Americans whose ancestors lived in the area for centuries. It was a memorable experience, the highlight being swimming in the aqua blue pool directly under Havasu Falls. I can’t wait to see what she will conjure up for her 80th birthday. I’m hoping that in ten years wheel chairs or walkers won’t have to be part of the adventure.
I never thought I was the cruise type of person. In fact I still don’t. I’m not interested in the on- board planned activities or purchasing items from the shops like the cheesy art work or over priced glitzy jewelry. I don’t gamble or drink much alcohol and I don’t enjoy making small talk with a bunch of people I don’t know. But I discovered that being stuck on a ship with complete room service, very friendly and efficient service people attending to my every need and delicious and varied food available at almost every hour of the day, wasn’t so bad.
I found numerous quiet places on the ship to sit and read and watch the beautiful scenery pass by and I was able to work out every day. The exercise machines In the ship’s fitness center face huge windows looking over the bow of the ship. On the promenade deck, you can walk or run around the entire perimeter of the ship. Also, there is an outside basketball court that is rarely used and perfect for practicing Tai Chi and Kung Fu.
This was my second cruise. The first one was to Mexico. I discovered then that I liked being on a ship out on the open sea. In October of 1967, I sailed on a Merchant Marine Ship with my Army unit to Vietnam. I remember gazing out over the beautiful, expansive Pacific Ocean and thinking, I would love to be doing this under different circumstances. On our cruise to Alaska, we had stops in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and a briefly in Victoria, BC before returning to Seattle. The Inside Passage was stunningly beautiful. Prior to our first scheduled stop in Juneau, the ship sailed into Tracy Arm to view Sawyer Glacier. As we slowly wound our way through the sheer rock cliffs of the fjord, passing large chunks of crystal blue ice, hundreds of passengers, including the three of us, scurried around the ship from one side to the other and from the lower to upper decks, in an attempt to get a better view. We crowded around on the bow of the ship in the cold, drizzly air trying to see everything that passed by. It took hours for the ship to reach the glacier and when it did we were exhausted from standing in the cold and running around. The Captain held the ship in front of the glacier for such a long time, that looking at it became boring. The ship slowly turned around n place before heading out of Tracy Arm and back to sea. As we trudged back down to the cafeteria area, tired, cold and wet and ready for dinner we passed through the hot tub/pool area. In one corner was a small bar. My sister noticed that the same people that she had seen hours before starting the exhausting quest for the perfect view were still sitting there drinking. There they sat on bar stools facing out huge windows on the side of the ship. We instantly realized that sitting in one place with absolutely no physical exertion necessary, except of course getting one’s alcoholic beverage up to one’s lips, was the best possible strategy. The Captain skillfully maneuvered the ship through the fjords and in front of the glacier which presented a panoramic view of it all. They saw the right side of the fiord on the way in, the glacier as he turned around and the left side on the way out. Never in my life did I think I would admire people who began drinking at 10 in the morning, but there you have it. When we sailed into the Juneau harbor, three cruise ships were already docked there. These huge vessels lined up in front of the small town, completely blocked the towns people’s view of the harbor. I’m not sure what the population of Juneau is, but it probably doubled in a matter of hours when the ships sailed in. The souvenir shops that faced the docks were already teeming with tourists eagerly purchasing Alaskan jewelry, tee shirts and trinkets. The cruise industry must significantly boost the local economy, but at what cost. The quaintness and charm of these small Island towns is almost totally lost because of it. Of the three Alaskan towns we visited, Sitka was the most beautiful. Small islands dot the waters surrounding it and the town is configured in such a way, that the tourist shops can’t dominate the waterfront like Ketchikan and Juneau. The ship docked in the harbor and passengers were shuttled to shore in tenders. I expected to see more Russian architecture. It seems that the Russian Orthodox Church was the only building from that period. The Russians took possession of Alaska by force from local Native American tribes. At the time they were interested in harvesting sea otter pelts. They killed thousands and thousands of these cute little guys and traded the pelts to China for tea. After feeling the soft silky pelts I can understand why the Chinese wanted to wear them. The Chinese had a way of turning tea leaves into hard blocks which preserved it longer than in leaf form. At the time the Russian people were into drinking a lot of tea. When the political and economic atmosphere changed, the Russians unloaded Alaska to the US for a ridiculously small sum of money. Seward OK’d the purchase and at the time it was thought of as a foolish investment and referred to as “Seward’s Folly”. (To be continued, next blog)