Category Archives: Travel

A Song of Blubber and Ice

Alaskan Cruise, Days 10 and 11 – At Sea

If a cruise is going to suck, it will probably suck on the days you’re at sea. You paid to visit fascinating places by ship. When you’re not at the fascinating places, you’ve just got ship. I grant that it’s a marvelous ship, with liquor near the hot tubs and pizza a short walk from the string quartet. But in the end it’s a hotel full of strangers you can’t get away from. The cruise line tacitly admits this by packing each day with entertainment and educational opportunities. But at some point you’ll want to choke the hillbilly at the next dining table to death with his own beard, and no number of cha-cha lessons will change that.

However, the ocean offshore of Alaska is more fun than any of the places you might visit on shore. The ship has a guy whose job is to look around for cool things, such as a sea lion climbing the face of a glacier (just as an example). Then he tells everyone to look off the port bow for this amazing thing. After half a dozen people are trampled to death while everyone tries to figure out where the port bow is, people pack the railing four deep to collectively snap a quarter of a million photos of one perplexed sea lion.

It’s great.

Rather than babble about how great it is, I’ll include a few of the 5,000 photos I’ve taken over the past couple of days.

To start with, here’s a glacier. Yes, I know it’s just another wall of ice, but I think the picture is pretty.

Glacier In The Mist

I’ll follow that with a couple of humpback whale shots, one jumping around like a dachshund, and two more just hanging out, wondering where to go for dinner.

Whale Jumping

Two Whales

I happened to catch a glacier calving, which means a hunk of it is falling off. Look for the red circle on the first shot—that indicates the hunk that falls off.

Calving Frames 1

Calving Frames 2

And I’ll finish with a traditional farewell whale shot.

Whale Butt

Tomorrow—puppies!

Only The Stubborn and the Broke Survive to Sail Home

Alaskan Cruise, Day 9 – Whittier

Ninety-five percent of the people on this ship disappeared this morning. The ship has reached its northern-most port of call and will begin sailing back to Vancouver tonight. Most people travel just one direction on this trip, but the cruise line doesn’t object to selling you a more expensive ticket if you want to go both directions. My wife and I are among the few who thought that would be a keen idea.

In the past week we’ve frequently heard the question, “Why do you want to turn around and spend another week seeing all the stuff you just saw?” The people asking this have a point. We will now be forced to once more look at all those mountains and glaciers and whales and sea otters and other stuff we may never see again. Watch us suffer.

By the way, here’s a sea otter we sailed past yesterday:

They don't have blubber on their paws, so they float on their backs with their cute little paws in the air to keep them warm. And to keep them poised to tear your liver out if you get too close.
They don’t have blubber on their paws, so they float on their backs with their cute little paws in the air to keep them warm. And to keep them poised to tear your liver out if you get too close.

Hanging in there for the return trip is benefiting us in a way I never expected. A whole ship-full of new passengers came aboard today, wide-eyed and anticipating their passage to Vancouver. And they don’t know a god damned thing about this ship. Their bewilderment binds them together, and it allows us to feel superior to them. My wife and I hear their plaintive cries as they wander the passageways like Spinal Tap, and we smile.

Here are some of their most common questions, along with the answers I’d give them if I had any kind of empathy or pity.

Which way is the front of the boat?

First of all, it’s a ship, not a boat. The distinction may not seem important, since both will drown you if something bad happens, but boats are small and ships are big. I don’t really know where the demarcation lies, but any vessel big enough to host a Def Leppard concert is certainly a ship. Second, to find the front of the ship you should look over the railing and note which direction the ocean seems to be moving. The front of the ship is the other way, unless you’re sailing to Canada in reverse.

What do I have to pay for on this ship?

The cruise line provides, free of charge, everything you need to keep from dying. That includes food, water, tea, and black coffee. Also, they don’t make you pay to sing karaoke, and you can watch all the singers, dancers, musicians and magicians you want. Everything else costs extra.

Do I have to sing karaoke?

No, you can play bingo instead if you want. However, everybody in the karaoke bar is getting hammered and working up the guts to sing Copa Cabana, so they’re a pretty accepting bunch.

Why isn’t there a single clock on the ship?

The immediate reason is that the cruise line doesn’t want to force any time pressure on you that might mar your relaxing, worry-free holiday. The underlying reason is that they sell watches in the atrium every day, and they want you to buy one.

How do you ever find anything around here?

Forget finding anything. Cruise liners are like hotels twisted and crammed into a ship’s hull by omnipotent howler monkeys. The ship’s geography resists human understanding. By the time your one-week cruise ends you may have memorized the path to the closest source of martinis, but no guarantees. Your best bet is herding. If you’re hungry, follow the people who look hungry. The strong ones will lead you to the buffet eventually.

Here’s a picture of our ship. You can see that it’s larger than a mountain, at least from certain angles.

I'm pretty sure I saw a minotaur at the piano bar last night. He was requesting a lot of Billy Joel.
I’m pretty sure I saw a minotaur at the piano bar last night. He was requesting a lot of Billy Joel.

Despite the vessel’s awesome scope, my wife and I are now initiated into its mysteries and can find the hot tubs that are off-limits to kids. That makes me kind of dread going back home where I can’t even find the right laundry detergent at Tom Thumb.

I console myself with this photo of four sea otters floating in front of four glaciers and serenading us as we sail away.

The farewell song of the sea otters.
The farewell song of the sea otters.

 

Is Glacier Bay Better Than Disney World? Let’s Put a Kid in a Humpback-Whale Suit and Find Out

Alaskan Cruise, Day 7 – Glacier Bay

Before I left home, a friend warned me that I must not fail to be on deck to observe Glacier Bay when the ship enters it. She told me I’d have to get up early to experience this event, but it would make the entire trip worth the effort.

So, this morning I bounced out of bed at 5:00 a.m., just an hour after sunrise. I dressed myself in every piece of clothing I possessed. My wife lay under the covers and didn’t say anything. She merely watched me the way she watches one of the cats just before it rolls over in its sleep and falls off the dining room table.

I knew that the ship was approaching Glacier Bay, and I didn’t want to miss anything. By 5:30 a.m. I was standing on the tallest observation deck with my camera, binoculars, and high expectations. I scanned the horizon for magnificent vistas, but we had not yet reached any areas of magnificence. Occasionally another passenger joined me, shivered for a few moments while glancing at the lovely but customary Alaskan landscape, and then they trotted back down the stairs. The wind and cold were ghastly. Had I not been clothed in the equivalent of two sheep, I’m sure I would have died instantly.

Two hours into my shatteringly cold vigil, my wife came looking for me. She found me braced against the railing, examining the coastline for any sign of glaciers, or a bay, or even some chunks of floating ice in the water. My wife said, “You should consider the fact that your definition of ‘early’ and other people’s definition of ‘early’ might not be the same.” Then she led me downstairs to the breakfast buffet.

By 9:00 a.m. I was back in my firing position on the observation deck. Glacier Bay chose that time to show itself. My friend hadn’t lied. It was astounding. I snapped off 938 photos, three of which I consider decent. The rest captured the bay’s glory no better than I could have with a Crayola between my toes.

Here’s a shot of the mountains over the bay:

I chose to crop the bottoms of the trees out of the frame. I hope it looks artistic rather than like I was drunk on Alaskan Rhubarb-flavored vodka.
I chose to crop the bottoms of the trees out of the frame. I hope it looks like an artistic choice rather than a blunder inspired by Alaskan rhubarb-flavored vodka.

Here’s a photo of a glacier because, heck, it’s Glacier Bay:

I don't remember the name of this glacier, but as far as glaciers go this one's a badass.
I don’t remember the name of this glacier, but as far as glaciers go this one’s a badass.

A bald eagle surprised us by springing aloft from a floating chunk of ice and flying past the ship:

 

I'm shooting downwards at this fellow because cruise ships are about 1200 feet tall. I could be wrong about that. They're probably taller.
I’m shooting downwards at this fellow because cruise ships are about 1200 feet tall. I could be wrong about that. They’re probably taller.

Glacier Bay was every splendid thing I’d imagined. I’ll never forget how wonderful it was.

Alaskan Cruise, Day 8 – Glaciers in College Fjord

More ice, more water, seen it all before. Blah, blah.

Order Me a Leviathan of the Deep With Extra Pepperoni

Alaskan Cruise, Day 5 – Juneau

My wife and I resumed our prophylactic anti-heart-attack walking regime at 7:00 a.m. Alaska Time, a lazy three hours after sunrise. A gale hurled drizzle across the Celestial deck. It would probably have destroyed our roof back home, but we didn’t care. We had cocooned ourselves in the shirts and sweaters we’d bought in Ketchikan, and we looked like two rolls of toilet paper with legs power-walking around the railing.

During breakfast I bounced in my chair like a chained terrier because today’s main activity would be a whale watching tour. Mid-morning we skipped away from the cruise ship and down the pier through a freshening rainstorm and thickening fog, and half an hour later we boarded a high-speed catamaran. The crew welcomed us and smiled, but they shuffled their feet while warning that we might not see anything in this weather. After all, you can’t just summon a while like you would a pizza.

An hour later we ran across this fellow:

The consensus among the tour guides was that this guy was just dinking around having a good time.
The consensus among the tour guides was that this guy was just dinking around having a good time.

He was soon joined by his five buddies in the killer whale pod:

There were two more killer whales swimming around with these, but never once did all six of the inconsiderate bastards all stay on the surface for the 10 seconds I would have needed to get them in focus.
There were two more killer whales swimming around with these, but never once did all six of the inconsiderate bastards stay on the surface for the 10 seconds I would have needed to get them in focus.

An hour after that a humpback whale dropped by to visit:

Sixty seconds later he crushed that boat like he was Moby Dick. Well, he probably thought hard about it.
Sixty seconds later he crushed that boat like he was Moby Dick. Well, he probably thought hard about it.

Finally, we ran across these sea lions draped all over a buoy like cheap glass angels on a Christmas tree.

I felt exactly the same way after the Chocolate Buffet.
I felt exactly the same way after the Chocolate Buffet.

It was a pretty cool afternoon. On the bus ride back to the ship we passed the gauntlet of Juneau’s watch and jewelry stores. We also saw an alpaca products store that we promised to visit another day. When we drove right past a “Fudge for Sale” sign, our entire bodies convulsed at being unable to stop the bus.

We finished this evening in the ship’s Italian restaurant. There the maitre d’ managed to clean, gut, skin and bone a striped bass right beside our table and make it not only appetizing but artistic.

Today we were victorious.

Despite Our Best Efforts, Alaska Fails to Kill Us

Alaskan Cruise, Day 3 – Sailing North

I’ve found that cruising is about three things: food, booze, and karaoke. The booze isn’t free, and my tolerance for $12 martinis is limited. Nobody would ever sing karaoke unless they were lit up like Chernobyl. That leaves food, which is available 24 hours a day in quantities limited only by the fear of your heart exploding.

My wife and I have faced cruise ship buffets in the past, and on this trip we resolved to gain no more than ten percent of our body mass. Our strategy is to never step into an elevator. If we can’t climb the stairs to our destination, we do without. This has two benefits. First, we work off a few calories whenever we go anywhere, because the most interesting thing on our deck is the Laundromat. Second, before I climb the nine flights of stairs standing between me and the buffet, I have to want veal cutlets and mashed potatoes a whole lot. I think the strategy’s working, and I figure I’ve only gained about a pound a day.

We came here with a second strategy to keep us from dropping dead the moment we get home. My wife and I planned to walk around the top deck some heroic number of times every morning to keep fit. This morning we climbed all the way up past the Promenade deck, the Emerald deck, and the Lido deck to the Celestial deck, where we stepped outside and realized we’re morons.

When we left home we were enjoying normal mid-summer weather, which is to say a daily high temperature of about 100 degrees. In Vancouver we adjusted to the brisk 75 degree afternoons pretty well. At sunrise on a ship in the Pacific off British Columbia it was 50 degrees, which we’ve experienced at home several times. The 30 mph wind put us to the test, but we’re pretty tough. However, on deck we learned that a ship sailing at 25 knots into a 30 mph wind on a cold day with 100 percent humidity is what kills people from Texas. Here’s a picture of my wife on deck before we ran back to our cabin and put on all the clothes we’d brought with us.

My wife, freezing to death against the railing. You can see where the Grim Reaper has marked her chest.
My wife, freezing to death against the railing. You can see where the Grim Reaper has marked her chest.

Okay, we had to buy more clothes. However, buying clothes from a cruise ship store is financially unwise, like cashing in your IRA and giving the money to chimps. We’re scheduled to dock in beautiful Ketchikan, Alaska tomorrow, so we hope to survive until then.

Alaskan Cruise, Day 4 – Ketchikan

Ketchikan is beautiful. It’s dim and awkward, with a disproportionately large number of bars and tattoo parlors. Every house and shop is painted a different color, and in the sunlight it would probably look Disney-esque. Under today’s low, dripping skies it looked like a black and white photograph that’s been colorized in a few quirky spots. But two things in particular endeared it to us: no wind and cheap gifts.

Here are a couple of views of Ketchikan:

My first view of Ketchikan. It's like they knew I was coming.
My first view of Ketchikan. It’s like they knew I was coming.

 

It looks like where the Hobbits would live, if they were all tuna fisherman and drank Jim Beam.
It looks like where the Hobbits would live, if they were all tuna fisherman and drank Jim Beam.

I learned from a shopkeeper that 800 people live in Ketchikan, and 8,000 cruise ship tourists swarm the place every day. I expect that’s why the residents need a large number of bars per capita. Today, I think all 8,000 of those tourists were packed into three downtown blocks, picking through gold stores, diamond stores, jewelry stores, gold and diamond jewelry stores, art galleries, and a trendy shop selling bamboo sheets. Another store sold dead and skinned examples of every creature native to North America. Yet another carried smelly candles and lotions and soap, which I believe are all exactly the same stuff but in different packages.

None of those things interested me at all. I wanted to find a crass tourist mega-store that sold reasonably-priced souvenir sweatshirts with glittery wolves and bears glued to the chest. We needed a few of those to keep us warm in the northern ocean. I found the place I wanted right there on the waterfront—we couldn’t have wished for an establishment more crass and tawdry. We purchased the sweatshirts we’d been searching for, and we left with them. By coincidence, we also left with some t-shirts, a Christmas ornament, a novelty hat, a quilt, a pair of white fur gloves that could be worn by a hooker, and two pounds of fudge.

I believe that Ketchikan has saved our lives.

As our ship steamed north towards Juneau this evening, I stood on our balcony, toasty and even sweating a little under three Chinese-made Alaskan sweatshirts. I’d been wanting to photograph the sunset, and now I could endure the cold long enough to do it. One of my shots is below. You might notice that the sun has not set. It’s about 10:45 p.m., and I’m tired of waiting for the damned sun to set already. I’m going to bed.

Jeez, the farther north we go, the later the sun sets...

Jeez, the farther north we go, the later the sun sets…