I’m in Alaska!
I have tried to sit down to write this piece at least three times. But what do I say? I never dreamt for one moment that I would ever find myself in Alaska. When I watched Due South, and similar shows, on tv in the Eighties, it never occurred to me, for even one iota of a second, that I would ever be here myself. Even when we booked it, it didn’t seem real. But here I am. I’m in Alaska.
I’m on the other side of the world. I’ve been further away from home (we’re only at GMT -8 here and I’ve crossed the date line in the past), but I’ve never FELT this far away before. This is the last wilderness, the most unspoilt place on Earth apart from the Poles. People live here, but they are barely a dot on the landscape. There are no roads – the only access is by air or sea. Leaving Ketchikan, you can see where the road stops and the Tongass National Forest starts. It just stops. From here, you walk, row, paddle or fly (no boat engine noise allowed – we’re not even allowed announcements on deck while we’re here). This is Nature at its most basic and untouched.
Sorry, this is all getting a bit florid. But it’s hard not to wander off into superlatives. This place is amazing. Give me a second to calm down a bit.
This morning, I took a seaplane over the Misty Fjords National Monument.
Now, first things first. Seaplanes are smaller and much more cramped than helicopters, by a long chalk. A De Havilland Beaver (the bush plane of choice around here) has a Pratt & Witney 450 derated engine and seats six if you include the pilot. It is the closest thing I have ever seen to a manual plane (as opposed to an automatic). The pilot was forever winding things and pulling levers. It was quite unnerving, if I’m honest. Slightly more reassuringly, his radar/gps screens were in full colour and seemed to be working just fine.
I sat at the front, next to him, in a very snug three-point seatbelt (everyone else got lap belts). The carpet ended just in front of my seat and if I stretched my feet forward, onto the naked metal floor, the vibration and cold were astonishing. So I didn’t. I kept my feet firmly tucked underneath me, in the warm. The De Havilland Beaver was specifically built to deal with the needs of the Alaskan wilderness postal service (you can load and unload a 50 gallon drum with ease because they changed the shape of the doors, for example.). Our pilot, Bobby, had a malfunctioning CD player, so instead of the pre-recorded tour, we got a personalised one from him, which was lovely.
Taking off was surprisingly bumpy, but that was mainly due to the wash caused by previous take-offs – I think at one point there were about ten seaplanes in the air at the same time. We kangarooed a couple of times before lifting off and heading upwards. It took about half an hour of flying over the Tongass National Forest, which is almost exclusively conifers (red and yellow spruce and hemlock(!)), before we reached the Misty Fjords. On the way there, we bounced around enormously. De Havilland Beavers are small enough to pick up almost every thermal they pass, and I found out that I am apparently quite a nervous flyer – particularly when I keep getting dropped several feet without warning. Heaven only knows where my stomach is now. We left it behind quite early on. I wasn’t ill – no one was – but it was a bit unnerving, and I never felt truly comfortable. Mercifully, there were no thermals over the water.
The Misty Fjords National Monument is a series of natural inlets and waterways that wind between the mountains, carved by glaciers and pockmarked by volcanic plugs. Contrary to expectation, we had an astonishingly bright and sunny and, most importantly, CLEAR day, which meant we could see for miles. We saw waterfalls and islands, sheer granite cliff faces that drop hundreds of feet straight downwards, and snow, lots of snow, but only above about 1800 feet. Some of the lakes were still frozen and some were just beginning to melt.
As regards fauna, we saw a bear – they’re only just coming out of hibernation now, so there weren’t many about – and two bald eagles guarding their nest. There is no logging in the Monument, although the Tongass National Forest bears the scars of authorised logging and we even saw some logs being loaded onto ships for transportation as we returned to base.
We landed in the middle of Rudyerd Bay, with nothing but water for a mile or so in any direction, and climbed out onto the floats for photos. Herewith mine and yes, I am hanging on for dear life. The water was mirror still, but that water was also deathly cold and I had no intention of going into it.
On our return to base, we each received a certificate of our trip, which was a nice touch. By now, the sun had gone in, so I returned to the ship for a thicker coat and then joined mum and dad for the shuttle ride into town.
We walked to Creek Street, which is a road built over a creek (hence the name), so all the houses are on stilts. This used to be the Red Light District and has some unusual historical sights. We then took the Funicular up to Cape Fox Lodge, at the top of the hill/mountain, where we had reserved a table for lunch. They had written it in for yesterday, but they had a table for us just the same. We sat and admired the view until our food came and my lemonade, which here is a rather startling shade of pink.
We watched two of the four cruise ships in town today leave while we had lunch (the Celebrity Infinity followed us out during dinner in the evening). Then it was back down into the town for a little shopping, before returning to the ship at about 3.45. Bob was 4.30, again, because we have quite a way to go to get to Juneau, and we have speed restrictions now. I slept for two hours straight before going to dinner. I couldn’t have been more out cold if you’d hit me over the head with a hammer.
I’m sorry if the above doesn’t really do the place justice. It’s hard to describe the majesty of snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see in every direction, interspersed with dark green, constantly rippling, almost iridescent water and acre upon acre of densely-packed conifer forest. Sorry, that’s the best I can manage right now. If I come over more poetically inclined, I’ll edit later.
An amusing aside as we came back on board. Our friend, the Head of Security for the ship, had to seize 74 Ulus brought on board by passengers who had purchased them today. An ulu is a form of semi-circular chopping knife with a handle, used in a rocking motion. All blades over about 3 inches are banned as offensive weapons, so every one had to be confiscated and labelled so they can be returned to their purchasers when they disembark. 74 of them.