Alaska, June 2015

Great Britain

Great Britain
and Finland



Travelogue: Alaska, June 2015

By Roger W. Reini

By Day:

June 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19

This is the story of a family trip to Alaska in June 2015 — a cruise, followed by excursions to Denali National Park and to Fairbanks.


How did this trip come to be? For me, Alaska represented the 49th state in my quest to visit all 50 states. That was a minor reason compared to all of the natural beauty and scenery there. Later, in speaking with my aunt and uncle, perhaps while I was telling them about the cruises I had taken (to the Bahamas, not Alaska) or wanted to take, I asked if they’d ever be interested in taking a cruise. My aunt said that an Alaska cruise would be the only cruise she’d want to go on. So then we started to think about when we’d want to go and what we’d like to do.

For a while, we considered a combination rail-sail tour: take the train to Seattle, take a roundtrip cruise out of Seattle, then return home on the train. But my aunt said she wanted to see Denali National Park and Mount McKinley, which would not have been possible with the rail-sail tour, so we ruled it out. In August 2014, my aunt went to a travel show sponsored by AAA and picked up some information. Here, our plans started to firm up, and we made our deposits.

Who was going on the trip? My aunt Marie, my uncle Bill, and cousin Barb (Marie and Barb were first cousins, which made me a first cousin once removed).

Our itinerary had us flying to Vancouver by way of Seattle on June 6, taking a 7-day cruise to Seward on Holland America’s Oosterdam, overnighting in Anchorage, taking a train to Denali National Park for a 2-night stay, then traveling to Fairbanks for an overnight visit before flying back to Detroit by way of Minneapolis. It would be a nearly-two-week trip of a lifetime. But I had already made several trips of a lifetime: pilgrimage to the Bahá’í holy sites in Israel; traveling to Uganda to see my older niece graduate from high school and to go on a safari; a trip to Finland to see one of my ancestral homelands; two trips to the UK (another of my ancestral homelands), and so on.

I knew I would need at least one new jacket for the trip. I received one for Christmas as a present from my aunt and uncle, a travel jacket with removable sleeves and lots of pockets. It wasn’t particularly heavy — not that it needed to be. My nieces and nephew teamed up to give me an L. L. Bean tote bag filled with many travel-related items (they also gave tote bags to Marie and Bill).

As the cruise drew nearer, I read many travel guides and tour books, visited multiple websites and investigated the onshore excursions available on the cruise and land tour. Many of them were interesting; many of them were expensive. We decided on the excursions that appealed to us; it turned out we were in agreement on most of them. As I had an account with the Holland America website, and as they had notified me that I could sign up for shore excursions and make spa and meal bookings, I booked most of my excursions via the Web, while the others would use our AAA travel agent. There was one “excursion” I didn’t book, a dinner and show in Fairbanks, as there were two times available and I didn’t want to select the wrong one; I would let the travel agent book mine with the others.

The Sunday before our departure, it was 50 degrees with rain in Detroit. Very unusual for late spring, but perhaps it would be a preview of what to expect in southeast Alaska. I did a little bit of packing, although the bulk of it would come in a few days.

May 29: forecast for Vancouver in June 6 and 7 has highs of 20 (68) and lows of 13 (55) with 40% chance of rain Saturday and 80% Sunday. No other forecasts available yet.

June 2: forecast for Vancouver has improved, now highs of 24 and 26 with 10% chance of rain. Southeast Alaska looks to be cool, and Skagway may be downright chilly!

June 5

It was my birthday. It was also the day before the big trip. It was a regular work day for me, so I went into the office, mailing two bills earlier than I would normally do because of the trip. I had two meetings at work in the morning; I had lunch; I worked on other items in the afternoon, and then I came home.

When I arrived home, there was a package on the front porch. A birthday present? No; it wasn’t even for me. It was for a former boss of mine, but somehow it had been mailed to my address by mistake. Our names both started with R, so I think someone picked up the wrong address line. Unfortunately for him, I wouldn’t be able to give it to him until I returned from the trip.

Earlier in the day, I’d received an e-mail from Delta Air Lines instructing me to check in for the flight. Now that I was home, I could do so. In fact, I was the last of our party to do so; everyone else was retired and could have (and did) check in earlier. After entering my passport information and paying for my one checked bag, I printed my boarding passes for each segment of tomorrow’s flight. I hadn’t gone the smartphone route yet, but I had been thinking about it.

I finished packing my main bag and set it aside. It weighed around 28 pounds; good. By the end of the night, I nearly finished packing my carry-on bag; I could not completely finish until the morning. It weighed in around 21 pounds; that wouldn’t be comfortable carrying for very long. But I might have to.


June 6

Our flight to Vancouver would leave at 8:30, which meant we had to be at the airport by 6:30. That meant an early wake-up for all of us, though not so early for me because I lived closer to the airport. I was up at around 4:20 and made my final preparations. By 5:30, I was all packed and ready to go, so all I had to do was wait for everyone to arrive. As I was watching a vintage episode of "I've Got a Secret" on the new Buzzr channel around 5:40, there was a knock at the door. It was Marie, Bill and Barb. I got my bags, brought them to the car, locked the front door, and we were on our way.

We parked at the Green Lot long-term lot at the airport and took the shuttle van to the terminal. There, we checked our bags and cleared security. Three of us had no trouble, but Marie had a harder time due to having had replacement knees installed. She made it through, though, and we were set. We got breakfast at a McDonald's in the terminal, and I got an Economist magazine at the Economist Newsstand. Our flight was leaving from gate A4, so we took the tram to reach that part of the airport. While we waited, I noticed someone wearing a shirt with a message about the TSA; the S had been replaced with a swastika, so the message was not complimentary.

It was a sunny day with few if any clouds in the sky as we took off. I was on the right side and f the plane, so I could not see my house when we took off. Dearborn and Dearborn Heights were quite visible, though, and we could confirm that the Jeffries Freeway I-96 had no traffic problems. Skies were clear throughout Michigan and into Wisconsin and Minnesota.

At one point, it occurred to me to pull out the iPad and use its GPS sensor to see where we were. I had the offline map program, so I needed no data plan to pull up maps of where we were. When I first checked, we were over Minnesota near TBD. That was home to a famous bank that Bill and I had visited three years before.

Clouds increased over the Dakotas, and the ride got a bit bumpy at times. The seal belt sign was lit for much of the flight. That didn't keep people from visiting the restroom, though. On a long flight like that, it was a necessity. I had to get up and use it on one occasion, which wasn't easy from a window seat. Eventually, we were in the Seattle area. Thanks to new regulations that allowed tablets like iPads being available for use throughout the flight, we could see our path over the city and could tell that the pilot was lined up dead on with the runway (a very good thing).

Once on the ground at SeaTac Airport, we had a layover of some 3 1/2 hours. First, trips to the restroom. Second, McDonald's for lunch. Third, some wandering around the concourses to waste some time. I saw two musical acts performing and gave a dollar to one of them. I visited the Hudson News store but got nothing. Before long, we were at the gate for our next flight segment to Vancouver, our ultimate destination. We had a small plane (still a jet) and a short flight, perhaps 25 minutes in the air. After clearing immigration and customs, we were officially in Vancouver. That made it four provinces for me: Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and now British Columbia. And it also marked a geographical milestone for me: I was now farther west than I had ever been before (the previous holder of that record was Point Reyes Lighthouse in California). That mark would be broken many times over the next several days.

We caught a cab into town; the driver, Marinder, was most helpful, getting us to our destination downtown, the Best Western Plus Downtown Vancouver. Our rooms were on the 10th floor but we're not adjoining; the men were in 1011, the women in 1014. The view from our window was of a building under construction.

What would we do for supper? We took a short walk in the area to see what was there, but the answer to our question was "not much." We ended up returning to the hotel to eat at the de facto hotel restaurant, the White Spot. That was a casual restaurant in western Canada that was on the order of Applebee's or Boston Pizza. What did I have? I had Manhattan clam chowder and then spaghetti and meatballs, both of which were very good. Now the hotel did not have a snack shop, but there was a 7-Eleven across the street, which was just as well. I went there and brought back 2 bottles of Diet 7-Up, one of which I would consume that evening, with the other being saved until morning.

There were many young people out and about that evening, but as for us, we were in bed by 8 or 8:30 (11:30 PM by our body clocks). Now Bill and I had to contend with LED lights in the bed baseboard that we couldn’t figure out how to turn off. It turned out that the switch was very accessible, but we thought it was to turn off plugs by the lamps between the beds.


June 7

I woke up around 5 AM, which was more like 8 AM to me. I hadn’t adjusted to Pacific time yet; that would take a few more days. And while I checked my e-mail and other things with my iPad, I contemplated my current situation: I had traveled farther west than I had ever been before in my life, and I would be able to keep on saying that for the next 8 or 9 days. I’d be able to say that until next Tuesday and our visit to the interior of Denali National Park.

After everyone woke up, we went to the White Spot restaurant for breakfast. We had vouchers good for a special breakfast at the restaurant: scrambled eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage and multigrain toast. And that breakfast was good, the toast especially so. We got a good deal there. Now we didn’t have to vacate our rooms until noon, so Bill and I went for a walk on the nearby Granville Bridge. We had our cameras with us, and there were a number of photo opportunities, such as the boats of Granville Island and the many skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver. There were also photo opportunities that wouldn’t be noticed by most people, such as an amateur radio antenna atop the Executive Inn. Back at the room, I downloaded the pictures to the iPad, my first opportunity to do so on the trip. I left my laptop at home, the first time I’d done that for a major personal trip since my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2007, for I figured the iPad would be sufficient for my needs. And with 128 GB of space, there was plenty of room for the pictures I expected to take.

When noon rolled around, we went down to the lobby to wait for the 2 PM shuttle to Canada Place and the cruise ship terminal. Marie and I went over to the 7-Eleven across the street to get some snacks and drinks. I bought what I thought was a Diet 7-Up, but only after consuming most of it did I learn it was a regular 7-Up. Oops! I needed to examine that bottle more carefully. The lobby was crowded, but it eventually emptied out. We spent some time talking with a couple from Dallas who were cruising tomorrow; this afternoon, they were waiting for a Vancouver tour bus to pick them up. At 1:50, the shuttle arrived to take us and two other couples to the cruise terminal. Here began our official re-entry to the USA. Yes, once we boarded the ship, we would be officially regarded as being back in America. The alternative would have been to clear customs in Ketchikan, our first port, and I don’t think they could handle the load.

After clearing immigration and customs, we filled out a health questionnaire: did we have vomiting or diarrhea, cold or flu symptoms, or had we been in a country with Ebola in the past 21 days? The wrong answers on that questionnaire could lead to confinement to quarters or being denied boarding. Fortunately, I did not give the wrong answers. I checked in, received my ship card (good for the room key and onboard purchases), and waited for the others to catch up with me (I had been a bit faster and got ahead of them). Just before we boarded, we had our official Bon Voyage pictures taken, one group one and individual ones (those may have been cropped from the group picture). Before you knew it, we were aboard the Oosterdam, our home for the next seven days (and part of an eighth)!

By this time, it was after 3 o’clock; lunch was only being served until 3:30, we were informed. So after a quick stop at our staterooms to drop off our bags, we went up to deck 9, the Lido deck. Here, we got separated. The others went to the main Lido restaurant, while I ended up eating at the taco/fajita bar as part of poolside dining. I went that way because that was where I heard the noise coming from. The food was all right. Back at the cabin, I met our cabin steward Pisco when he delivered the luggage. I commented to him that the bed, which had been prepared as a single bed, should actually have been prepared as two twin beds; he said he would take care of it while we were at dinner, which was fine. I watched the safety video on the TV, for the mandatory lifeboat drill would take place at 4:15. We were given the audio cues and how to respond to them. At 4:15 came the call to proceed to our lifeboat stations. We did not have to put on lifejackets, unlike my very first cruise. The drill went well, and our lifeboat had everyone in attendance before most of the others. We didn’t have far to go; lifeboat station 7 was just two decks below us. After 15 minutes and some additional safety messages, we were dismissed to return to our business. For us, it was back to the cabins.

Shortly before setting sail, the captain announced that the bow would be open this afternoon and on other special occasions during the cruise; those occasions would be ones with prime scenery, and departing Vancouver qualified. While Marie and Barb decided to rest in their cabin, Bill and I headed to the bow. I had my camera bag and was starting to take pictures when I noticed that the dock at Canada Place was receding. We were under way at 4:52 PM! The departure was lower key than on the Disney ships; they would have a big production on their Lido deck to celebrate our setting sail. As we pulled away, we could see the sights of Vancouver, including Stanley Park and the Lions Gate bridge, under which we passed as we headed out to sea — not open sea, but the protected waters of the Inside Passage. For the next several hours, we would cruise between Vancouver Island and the mainland (note that the city of Vancouver is NOT on Vancouver Island).

There was a small mailbox outside of everyone’s stateroom, and ours had a lot of stuff in it. One item let us know about the beverage package that was part of our cruise: $50 of drinks per day. One item was a card telling us that we had reservations for the Pinnacle Grill, the main fine-dining restaurant on board, for Monday at 9 PM and to call to confirm our reservations (I took care of that for both of our rooms). Another item turned out to be a birthday gift from my sister Sharon and her family: she had given me a DVD set of the cruise. Actually, it was a voucher for the DVD set, for the set would not be available until the last night of the cruise. That set would prove to be a 3-DVD set: one featuring the cruise experience that was actually recorded during the cruise; one featuring the ports we visited; and one featuring Glacier Bay. My uncle Bill received a similar voucher, although it must have been intended for my aunt Marie. Her birthday had been a week and a half earlier, while mine had been two days ago. There was also the daily flyer of what was happening on board; first, there was the one for today, and later, there was the one for tomorrow.

I wandered around the ship for a while, seeing what was where on the lower decks and taking a brief look at the merchandise in the ship’s stores. If I wanted to buy a watch, I had plenty of selection from which to choose. If I wanted to get Holland America-themed merchandise, I could do that, too. There was a model of the ship that caught my eye; I had bought the model for one of the ships I’d previously sailed, the Disney Wonder.  Back at the room, I flipped through the TV channels; they weren’t as extensive as the ones on the Disney ships, I thought. There were several news and information channels (CNBC, MSNBC, Fox, BBC), two ESPN sports channels, some movie channels, and several ship’s information channels: cameras on the bow and the stern, presentations on shore excursions, presentations on shopping excursions, and a navigation channel showing the ship’s position, heading, and the current weather. We would keep that channel on much of the time while we were sailing.

Our dinner time was 8 PM, second seating. We had table 89 in the upper Vista dining room (deck 3), sharing a table of 8 with two other couples: Tom and Sue (from Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively), and Allan and Jody from Missouri. We were introduced to the servers who would handle our table every night, Galih and Hari. They did a very good job tonight (and every other night, it would turn out) with taking our orders and serving the food and drinks.  Here’s what I had this evening: French onion soup, shrimp and andouille with grits, and a banana crisp cake topped with French vanilla ice cream. Yum, yum! A salmon dish was on the menu, but I passed on it; I knew I’d have many more opportunities to have salmon on the cruise and on the trip.

When the meal ended, it was getting close to 10. The others wanted to see the show in the Vista lounge, but I didn’t feel like going. Instead, I took my camera and walked around the decks, first the promenade deck (deck 3) and then the observation deck (deck 10). It was still fairly light outside. It was also windy, as I learned when I went to the upper observation deck (deck 11); I didn’t stay there long. I did see a cruise vessel from Norwegian Cruise Lines heading in the opposite direction from us, towards Vancouver. Their cruise was coming to an end, while ours was just beginning. Speaking of endings, my first day on board was coming to an end. I went back to the room to find that the beds had indeed been split as requested. I downloaded pictures to the iPad and then called it a night between 10:30 and 11.


June 8

When I woke up for good around 6:30, the ship had passed Vancouver Island and was now in open sea. There were some swells, and the ship had a slight roll. It was time to develop our sea legs. After everyone was awake and dressed, we headed up to the Lido restaurant for breakfast. And here, we experienced our first instance of difficulty finding a table in the restaurant (this would be common in the Lido restaurant). We ended up sharing a table with a couple from Wyoming. Now the restaurant had several stations for getting food: a Continental breakfast section, an omelet section, the standard full-service hot breakfast section, a juice and dairy section, and a drinks section. I went with a more Continental approach this morning, selecting meats, cheeses, smoked salmon, a Danish, Special K, V-8 and orange juice. It was pretty good, I thought.

After returning to our cabins for jackets, we all proceeded to walk around the ship on the promenade deck. It was windy and chilly, but that didn’t keep Bill from setting up his camera to take some self-portraits of us on the deck. They turned out OK. Three times around the deck was one mile, but we only went around the one time. We decided to visit the Crow’s Nest on deck 10 to warm up and enjoy the view. Over the next several days, we would visit the Exploration Cafe here frequently, often to get bottles of VitaminWater zero mineral-fortified water. If that water was sold elsewhere on the ship, I had no idea.

As we sat enjoying the view and drinking our drinks, I was reviewing some of the news digests that had been published to let passengers know what was happening in the world. The New York Times published an 8-page digest of news, while there was a 4-page digest of Canadian news (I’d later learn about British and German digests, as well). Not much had been happening in the last 2 days. After we’d had our fill of the Crow’s Nest, we went down to the Photo Gallery on deck 3, where we were able to review the pictures of us that had been taken the day we boarded (i.e., yesterday afternoon) and learn about the various photo packages available to buy.  Then it was back to our cabins for a while.

At noon, we went to the Queen’s Lounge on deck 2 to see a film about Native culture in Ketchikan, our first port of call. We had to find seats on the extreme right side of the lounge, so much so that instead of watching on the main screen, it was easier for us to watch on the side monitor in front of us. That didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film. Then it was time for lunch, and once again, we had a hard time finding a suitable table for us. But we eventually found seats and enjoyed our meals. I went Japanese today, choosing to have beef Sukiyaki, udon noodles and fried rice, along with salad and a chocolate cupcake for dessert.

In the 2 o’clock hour, we split up to attend the events of our choice. While Barb, Bill and I headed to the Vista Lounge for a presentation on Alaskan wildlife, Marie went to a presentation on acupuncture. The wildlife presentation was a good one, though I found myself wanting to nod off a few times. Our presentation ended first, so we went over to wait for Marie’s presentation to end. Then it was off to the Sports Bar for Diet Cokes to take back to our rooms.

At 5 o’clock, the captain announced that the bow was open again, as we were about to begin our passage through the scenic Grenville Channel.  We all went up there, but it was quite windy out. Marie and Barb didn’t stay very long, and Bill left a short time after they did. I ended up leaving around 5:30 after I’d taken my pictures and after recovering my cap twice. That cap was not camera-friendly.

I had developed a blister on the fourth toe on my left foot, a place where I was prone to developing blisters. What to do?  Stick tissue paper around the toe as a cushion? I tried that; it wasn’t very effective. Bill had a better idea: a Band-Aid, and he’d brought some along. I put one on, and it was very effective.

Tonight was the first Formal Night on the ship. Now that didn’t mean that all the men wore tuxedos or all the women wore evening gowns. None of us did; we were dressed up, to be sure, but not in official formal wear. There were many places around the ship where passengers could get official photos taken, but we didn’t bother doing that. We were dining at the Pinnacle Grill this evening at 9, so we went to the 8 PM show in the Vista Lounge, “Northern Lights”. It was an OK show, most notable to me for featuring a rap version of “The Lumberjack Song” (and not the entire song, either). Never thought I’d hear that….

There weren’t many other diners in the Pinnacle Grill when we arrived; those that were there were out of our sight, for the most part. I’d taken a picture of the menu that was posted outside of the grill earlier in the day, in order to decide what I wanted to eat. There were seven appetizers from which to choose, including caviar (at an extra price); three seafood entrees, four meat entrees and three vegetarian entrees, along with eight vegetable options. We all selected one of the beef offerings for our main course. My selections were: first course, lobster bisque; main course, 10-ounce filet mignon, with grilled asparagus, sautéed mushrooms and whipped potatoes. That made for an excellent meal, and everyone else was equally satisfied with their selections. When the time came for dessert, we didn’t select from the main dessert menu, for Marie and I were treated to special birthday desserts. Today was not actually either of our birthdays, but they had happened very recently; in my case, it had been last Friday, the day before our flight to Vancouver. But we’d mentioned this proximity to our travel agent, and she’d arranged for this treat, no doubt. The pieces of cake were rather large, large enough that we said cut them in half so everyone could enjoy our birthday cake. It really hit the spot.

When we left the restaurant to return to our cabins, it was 10:30. It was still quite light outside, although the sun had set. That was strange to our sensibilities, and it was only going to get stranger as the trip progressed. Another sign of the trip’s progress: the ship was crossing into the Alaska Time Zone overnight, so we needed to set our watches back one hour. We would then be four hours behind Detroit time.


June 9

Thanks to the sun and our westward movement, I was up around 4:30 in the morning, Alaska time. Uncle Bill awoke fairly early as well; we went up to the top decks, decks 10 and 11, as we sailed into Ketchikan, our first port of call on the cruise. The weather was sunny and cool. We all went for breakfast around 6:30; once again, we had a hard time finding a suitable table for all of us, but we eventually managed to find one. The breakfast items were the same items available as yesterday, which was all right by me.

Our time in port was scheduled to be eight hours, from 7 AM to 3 PM. We had arranged for shore excursions, but they would not start until later, so we did not need to leave the ship right away. I took advantage of this time to use my MiFi portable hotspot and catch up on my e-mail and Facebook activities; my last time to receive e-mail was Sunday afternoon at the hotel in Vancouver. As I did what I normally did, I received a notice from Verizon that I had used 50% of my monthly data plan allotment of 5 GB, or 2.5 GB. Given my normal patterns of usage, that was expected; 50% after 20 days was fine. And having the MiFi eliminated any need to sign up for the shipboard Internet service, although later developments would make me change my mind.

We all left the ship around 8:30 and had our pictures taken with Lumber Jill as we headed into town — which was across the street from the dock. There were plenty of shops near the dock; some were souvenir shops, while others featured jewelry. I saw a couple of things to get for my sister and brother-in-law, and I got those; I also saw a potential birthday present for Marie, but I held off on that; I’d have opportunity later to get it while she wasn’t around.

At this point, we went our separate ways, for we were participating in different shore excursions that started at different times. While the others would be taking a catamaran trip to Misty Fjords and flying back on a floatplane, I would be going on a trolley tour of Ketchikan and the Saxman Totem Pole Park. Mine departed first, and I had another stop to make, so I left. I needed to look for another pair of socks, a thicker pair, one designed for hiking, for I believed that the blister on my toe was caused in part by too-thin socks. Fortunately, the Tongass Trading Company had just what I needed in their upstairs outdoors store; I would be well-prepared for the days ahead.

The trolley was available for boarding at the dock several minutes early. In fact, by 10 minutes to 10, everyone who’d signed up for the trip was on board. That let us head out early. Our bus driver and tour guide Cameron drove the bus through some of the back streets of Ketchikan, taking us past St. John’s Episcopal Church, the oldest church in town; the Married Man’s Trail, a well-worn path to the bawdy houses along Creek Street; staircases that were high enough and long enough to be called streets in their own right; and houses that were much more expensive than we would think they should be, thanks to their remote location. Groceries were much more expensive here, as was nearly everything. Five dollar foot-longs at Subway? Not here in Ketchikan; $12 was more like it. And Ketchikan was home to the second-smallest Walmart in the world, said our driver.

The Totem Pole Village was in the community of Saxman, a few miles southeast of Ketchikan. Here, totem poles from many nearby areas were brought here to conserve, protect and repair them. Many had been vandalized, but these were in good condition, for the most part. Our guide explained that the poles told stories. Some of the stories had been lost to time, but some were still able to be interpreted. He told us some of those stories, including the story of why Abraham Lincoln appeared at the top of one totem pole (it was in honor of a ship bearing his name). As he spoke, eagles would periodically soar overhead, looking for meals. I was able to take a picture of an eagle soaring near the Lincoln pole. At one point, as I was walking around, I saw a familiar tugboat and barge heading up the channel. Our ship had passed that tug and barge early yesterday evening in the Grenville Channel. I noticed a gift shop across the street from the park, although I didn’t go in. I wondered if the gift shop would have been considered a Utotem (the name of a former Houston-based convenience store chain).

After our time at the Totem Pole Village, we got back on the trolley and headed back to Ketchikan. Most of us, myself included, got off at historic Creek Street. Now Creek Street wasn’t a paved street; it was a wooden deck along and over the creek. Formerly home to several bawdy houses, it was now filled with gift shops and other tourist-related items. One such shop features carved bear statues; two of them featured the bears carrying football-themed signs cursing the 49ers and praising the Packers (what, nothing praising the Bears?). My brother-in-law would have liked the one praising the Packers, but I shuddered to think about how much it would cost.

As I walked back to the dock, I passed by a lemonade stand being run by two children in support of a medical fund for a child who needed an operation out of town. I was thirsty, so I bought a cup in support of their cause.  I passed by a store that was announcing a Sunny Day Sale; sunny days were rare in Ketchikan, but we had one today. I visited the Ketchikan Mining Company and bought the gift I saw for my aunt, and I arranged to have it shipped directly to her in Michigan, at a cost that was half of what I paid for the gift in the first place. Unfortunately, as I would learn two weeks later, I screwed up when giving the shipping address. I wrote down the correct number and street, but I put down my hometown and zip code rather than hers. That would lead to its being returned to sender and a phone call to my aunt, who gave them the corrected address.

Two other ships were in port at the same time as the Oosterdam: the Ruby Princess, which I’d seen earlier in the day, and a Silversea vessel that docked while I was leaving the gift shop. I decided to walk a little more around the dock area, discovering a boardwalk north of the Tongass Trading Post. This was where the Ruby Princess had docked; now there was a big ship (the Oosterdam was no slouch, either). After a short time, I turned around and decided to reboard the ship. The line was long, but it moved quickly, and soon I was back on board. I went back to the cabin to dump my things, and then I went up to the pool area for another go at the taco and fajita bar. While it was still good, I wondered in retrospect if I should have gone inside the restaurant for lunch and, say, tried the pasta or pizza offerings.

Back at the cabin, as I was doing another Internet check, I received a very surprising message: another data alert from Verizon, saying I’d used 75% of my data allotment. Over 1 GB in 4 or 5 hours? I wasn’t doing that much that would explain that. Doing some digging, I found what the problem was: the Photo Stream service. Thanks to uploading all of my photos onto the iPad, those pictures were now being copied to iCloud servers. That would definitely explain the usage! Clearly, I could not permit that to continue, so I turned off the Photo Stream capability. I also turned off the automatic downloading of images in my e-mails. Would that be enough to keep me from going over? I would find out soon enough.

This afternoon, there was a presentation in the Vista Lounge for those passengers who were on Land-Sea adventures and would be going on the land portion of their trips at the end of the cruise. We fell into that category, so I thought it best to attend. The others were still on their Misty Fjords adventure and couldn’t attend (the presentation would be repeated on Friday, so they could attend then). This presentation dealt with the logistics of preparing luggage for the trip: prepare a carry-on that you would keep with you at all times with your essentials, a bag that would be taken separately to every hotel or lodge you’d stay at (the “Meet Me Tonight” bag), and one or more bags that would be taken to the final destination of the trip (for us, the “Meet Me In Fairbanks” bags). We would receive these tags in tonight’s mail delivery.

After the presentation, I returned to the cabin. It was a little before 3 when I noticed that we had pulled away from the dock; we were leaving Ketchikan. I didn’t know where Marie, Bill and Barb were; I thought I had seen them boarding the ship after I had my lunch, and I figured they were having their lunch. It turned out that I hadn’t seen them board; they didn’t reboard until shortly before the gangway was pulled up.  I saw an eagle flying alongside the ship for a while. Later on that evening, around 7:30, we saw a whale! It was spouting right off of our balcony. I got a picture of it spouting as well as of its fluke (tail) as it sank back into the waters. Perhaps that would be a good sign for tomorrow’s whale-watching trip.

After our Pinnacle Grill experience the night before, we rejoined our dining room companions at table 89 in the Vista Dining Room. I had the linguine tonight, which was pretty good.  During the meal, we could see a humpback whale spouting in the distance (was it the same one we’d seen earlier?), as well as one of the fishing vessels featured on “Deadliest Catch”. As the meal ended, we saw a team of servers come to our table. Marie and I were about to receive another piece of birthday cake — and this time, it would be to the accompaniment of an Indonesian birthday song serenade. There was at least one such serenade, and usually more than one, every night in the dining room, and tonight, it was our turn. I ate my cake there, while Marie took hers back to her cabin for later enjoyment. After we’d left, Bill decided to visit B.B. King’s All Star Blues Club; I would have gone too, but I was too tired. When I pulled out my reading glasses to do some reading, I found that the frames had been bent and cracked; they were no longer usable. Since these were store-bought glasses, that was no big deal, as I had a spare. But I would want to get another pair to serve as a spare.

Now for some comments about on-board entertainment. In the Ocean Bar, there was a guitar-keyboard combo that called itself The Band; that felt like sacrilege to me, for The Band meant Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, etc., Music From Big Pink, “Up On Cripple Creek”, “Chest Fever”, The Last Waltz, and so on. In the Explorers Lounge was a classical group called Adagio; I did not hear them. B.B. King’s Blues Club featured the B.B. King All-Stars; more about them later. There was a piano bar on board; I didn’t go there, either. The Northern Lights dance club? Forget it.


June 10

Ketchikan’s weather was atypical for southeast Alaska: sunny and dry. Juneau’s weather would be much closer to the norm: cloudy, misty and rainy with some fog. It didn’t look too promising for our shore excursions today, but we had our ponchos, so we were ready.

We found it easier to get a table at breakfast this morning; I suspect that was because we wouldn’t arrive in port until 9 AM, so there wasn’t any pressure to get an early breakfast. I enjoyed the breakfast, which included my first serving of salmon for the day. As it turned out, I would have salmon at every meal today, but I’m getting ahead of myself. After we docked, I took my camera on a walk on the promenade deck. We were docked so that the port side was closest to shore; our staterooms had a view of the town of Douglas across the channel, so if I wanted to see the city, I’d have to go elsewhere. On my walk, I saw that we were stern-to-stern with another Holland America ship, the Amsterdam.

We all had booked the Best of Juneau shore excursion; more on that later. I was under the impression that we had all booked a second excursion, a ride on the Mount Roberts Tramway, the station for which was right beside the ship. I would later learn that Marie and Barb had not booked that excursion; they thought it would have been too much activity in conjunction with the Best of Juneau. At the time, I didn’t know that, and I thought that they were throwing away their money by not going. But no, they weren’t. So Bill and I left the ship and took the tram the 1800 feet up the mountain. Given the weather, you might think that the view from there would have been lousy. Well, it wasn’t top-notch, but the mountaintop wasn’t concealed in fog, so you could see down below to the ship, to downtown Juneau, and to the other side of the channel. I guess you could say that the view had character this morning.

As we rode up the tram, the operator (a member of the Tlingit community) told the story of a friend of his (also a Tlingit) who had a fear of heights. One day, he bought a tram ticket, which was good for unlimited rides all day, and spent all day riding the tram, up and down, up and down, over and over again.  By the end of the day, he had conquered his fear of heights.  Good for him!

While atop the mountain, we saw a movie on the Tlingit community, visited the gift shop (they carried lithium AA batteries Bill wanted for his camera — not particularly cheap, but since this was an Indian-owned activity, he was willing to pay a little more for them here). While we were up there, the rain stopped and visibility improved, allowing me to get some better pictures of the area and of the ship.

We went down around 11; Bill reboarded the ship, while I stayed in town to look for a backpack.  Now why was I looking for a backpack? Well, yesterday I’d used the canvas tote bag that my nieces and nephew had given me for Christmas in anticipation of this trip. But it was a large tote bag, and I was concerned it might be too large or too inconvenient for the land portion of the trip (would I be able to easily stow it under seats or in overhead compartments?), thus my search for a backpack. I didn’t find one today. I did visit a shop specializing in Russian goods; they even carried Soviet paraphernalia, such as flasks. pins, etc. I tried on an ushanka, a fur hat with ear flaps associated with the Soviet military. A guy passing by said that with the hat on, I looked like Vladimir Putin. I asked him if that was a compliment or an insult (ha ha). No, I didn’t get the hat.

By this time, it was 11:45. It was time for us to board the bus for the Best of Juneau. There were actually three buses for the Best of Juneau, perhaps corresponding to the three activities that made up the excursion: a visit to Mendenhall Glacier, a whale-watching cruise in the Stephens Passage, and a meal at the Orca Point Lodge. I thought that was the order that we would be doing the activities, but it turned out that we would be doing them in the opposite order: we would get the meal first, then watch the whales, then visit the glacier.  As it was lunchtime, I was all right with that. As our bus driver Josh drove us out on the main highway towards the boat dock, he told us a few stories. As we passed by a McDonald’s, he told the story of the day McDonald’s came to Alaska and how the restaurant was sold out within two hours of its opening. He also spoke of the Great Big Mac Airlift, the effort by bush pilots to buy burgers in town, then fly them out to remote locales for resale. Wow!

Our first stop was at Allen Marine in Auke Bay for our first two activities. We boarded the St. Phillip (or, as one of the lifejackets near my seat said, the St. Phil Lip) for our trip across the Stephens Passage to the Orca Point Lodge, located on one of the islands in the channel.  The tide was out as we docked; there was a great deal of exposed beach. There was also a sandbar that connected to a nearby island, but we were warned not to cross that sandbar, for it might disappear quickly. It was chilly as we walked up the dock to the lodge. There, a splendid meal awaited us: salmon or chicken (I had some of both), a California medley of vegetables, cole slaw, rice, a dinner roll, and a dessert that was something in between a brownie and a muffin. I’m not a fan of cole slaw, so I didn’t eat any, but the rest of the meal was very good. Service was quick and speedy for the over 100 people who were there. Afterwards, we wandered through the gift shop, although I went outside to take some pictures. I could see some kelp that was laying on the ground, waiting for the tide to come back in.  I don’t think it was raining, but it felt like it could rain at any time.

Part 2 of the Best of Juneau began as soon as we reboarded the boat. The captain proceeded to take us through the channel in search of whales. The company offered a guarantee: if you don’t see any whales on this cruise, we’ll pay you $100 at the dock. A few minutes into the cruise, we saw our first whale. Actually, we saw two whales, a mother and calf pair. They were surfacing and spouting, and one time, we saw the mother breach! That was a tremendous sight! As soon as I realized what was happening, I got my camera up and started taking pictures. I knew that I took some good pictures of the aftermath, the splash. What I didn’t know until later is that I had in fact gotten a picture of the whale completely out of the water. It was only half of the whale in the picture, so it wasn’t a perfect picture. Still, it represented my best-ever view of a whale on a whale-watching cruise, and I’d been on 3 or 4 of those.

After those whales moved off, the captain set off looking for more whales, and he found them for us. All told, we saw four whale breaches today. That’s rare to see that many, the crew said. We also saw some sea lions lounging on one of the buoys in the channel, surrounded by other sea lions that wanted to be lounging on that buoy. By 4:30, we were headed back to port. It was time to head to our final destination, the Mendenhall Glacier and Visitor Center. There were a number of trails that one could walk or hike to get better views of the glacier, but we spent our time at the Visitor Center. We didn’t have enough time to visit any of the trails, plus the weather wasn’t all that great. Still, we had a good view of the glacier, and I was able to take some more pictures. I took around 450 pictures today, almost one-quarter of the total number I would take on the trip. Most of those were rapid-fire pictures of the whales, trying to ensure I got that singular shot.

Was this tour indeed the Best of Juneau? I would say so. It had glacier viewing and whale watching, plus an excellent meal. That’a a great combination. Now when we got back to the ship, we couldn’t board right away. We had to stand out in the rain for several minutes while the crew reconfigured the gangway to account for higher water levels as the tide came in. We eventually got back on board, and we went to rest up in our cabins. I downloaded today’s pictures onto my iPad.

Dinner was at 8 in the Vista Dining Room again, and it was another good meal. Tonight, I had crab cakes and grits. The appetizer contained salmon, which enabled me to say that I had had salmon as part of all three meals today. After dinner, we considered our entertainment options. At 10 o’clock, Bill and I went to B.B. King’s Blues Club to catch the band’s final set of the evening. Their first two numbers were extended jams, somewhat jazzy; those were followed by more popular numbers (that’s 60s and 70s popular, not the pop of today). They did a good job. The Vista Lounge had the Indonesian Crew Show at 11 PM, put on by members of the crew. It sounded somewhat interesting, and Bill and Barb went to it, but I was feeling too sleepy, so I gave it a pass. Little did I know that the DVD of the cruise would contain several numbers from the crew show, so I guess I didn’t really miss it at all.


June 11

When I awoke this morning, I could see a rock wall very close to our balcony. We must be in a really narrow passage, I thought. But no, it turned out that we were docked. We were in Skagway. It was 5:45, well before our scheduled arrival time of 7 AM. There was only one excursion for us today, a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. More on that later. There were no immediate time pressures on us, so there was no rush in getting breakfast. Bill and I went for breakfast shortly after 7; Marie and Barb would follow later. The food was good, as usual. One could get spoiled eating like this.

There were three other ships in port today: the Ruby Princess, which we had encountered several times during the cruise; the Pacific Princess, successor vessel to the ship of that name that was featured on The Love Boat; and the Disney Wonder, the first cruise ship I ever sailed on (back in October 2010). The port was going to be crowded today. Bill and I decided to walk into town, which entailed a good hike from our dock location. I was looking for a backpack, and he was looking for a post office. I brought my iPad and MiFi along to do an e-mail check, for I could not get good coverage at the dock. I could and did get a good connection at the White Pass Railway station. We took some pictures of the surrounding area, including some of us standing by a very large snowplow used on the railroad. At the Alaska Shirt Company, I found a decent enough backpack; I also found a pair of reading glasses that I could use as a spare pair. We walked up the main street to the post office, where Bill was able to mail his postcards and get a picture of the post office (it was to have something saying “Skagway, Alaska”). We could hear a young woman calling for visitors to a museum that celebrated its prior life as a bawdy house; she was really getting into her part.

Another thing I was looking for was a cable for a mini-USB connector to a regular USB connector. This would allow me to connect my camera to my iPad; I thought that would make for a faster connection than connecting the memory card directly. I had several cables with me, but they all used a micro-USB connection. There was a Radio Shack dealer in town that sold a retractable cable that could take either a mini-USB or micro-USB and connect it to a regular USB port; that was exactly what I needed. Then we headed back to the ship. The sun was coming out, and I felt myself getting warm on the walk. I was wearing two jackets this morning; I’d have taken one off if I were going to stay outside any longer.

Back on the ship, I visited the Crow’s Nest and Exploration Cafe to get another drink of VitaminWater Zero and to attempt to connect with the MiFi.  The drink was good, while the connection attempt was poor. It was completely unsuccessful, in fact. I would now be without a reliable Internet connection until Sunday, when we reached either Seward or Anchorage. That got me to thinking about getting an onboard connection package. But that decision would come later. First, we had a train to ride.

We were booked for a 12:45 ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in one of their luxury parlor cars. When making our initial choices for Skagway excursions, I chose a different excursion that involved the railroad, one that went into the Yukon Territory. It would have been another political entity for me to add to my list of places I’d visited; it would also be an 8 hour excursion. The others decided to go for the luxury car experience, and I decided to join them. Sure, it was $100 more expensive, but it was shorter, and either way, I was sure I’d enjoy myself.

We left the ship at 12:30 and were directed to the front of the train, where we boarded one of the parlor cars. These cars had been built for the White Pass line and were going into service this year. The seats were comfortable, able to rotate 360 degrees. The car was very reminiscent of the parlor car available to sleeping car passengers on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line between Los Angeles and Seattle, an experience I had had in March 2010. The train started moving, and we were on our way. The train wasn’t moving particularly quickly, as the summit of White Pass was only 20.4 miles away. As we passed by many scenic and historic sights (and sites), we enjoyed appetizers and drinks. I had a bottle of locally brewed root beer, which was very good, as well as hors d’oeuvres made with reindeer sausage, some hummus, and a cheese-and-pesto spread. There were others, but I forget what they were. Often, we could see the Klondike Highway in the distance; that road went from Skagway to Fraser, BC and eventually to the Alaskan Highway. That made Skagway the only city in southeast Alaska that one could drive to from the rest of the continental US without needing to take a ferry.

As we approached the summit, we could see an obelisk flanked by the US and Canadian flags. This was the international border. We crossed into British Columbia for a short distance so that we could turn around — in reality, the engines changed their position relative to the rest of the train. We were in the front before, and now we were in the back. Our hostess/guide warned us to expect a big jolt when the engines re-connected to the train. She should have warned us to hold onto our drink bottles, because my bottle of Perrier toppled over and spilled most of its contents onto the rug. I had to get another bottle. We descended the way we had came; this enabled me, at one point, to take a picture of all four ships in port below us. An hour or so later, we were back at the port and heading back to the ship after a wonderful train experience.

Back on board, there was a flyer waiting for us in our mailboxes: an entry form for a 5K walk on the Promenade deck to support Holland America’s charity program On Deck For A Cause, which benefitted six cancer charities around the world: American Cancer Society, Canadian Cancer Society, Cancer Council Australia, Cancer Research UK, Deutsche Krebshilfe (German Cancer Aid) and KWF Kankerbestrijding (Dutch Cancer Society). Bill signed up to participate; later on, so did I. We both received T-shirts and a wristband for participating. The walk would take place Saturday afternoon, the last at-sea day of the cruise.

We all went up to the Exploration Cafe to get drinks, in my case another bottle of VitaminWater Zero. That stuff was pretty good. While we were there, I could hear a session of Name That Tune taking place in the Crow’s Nest. I couldn’t always hear the songs clearly, but when I could, I could easily identify what they were.  Back in the cabin, I finally decided to bite the bullet and purchase an onboard Internet package. Since there were only a few days left on the cruise, I decided to get a 100 minute package for $55. I recalled getting similar packages on my cruises on Disney.  As I retrieved my e-mail, I noticed a sharp increase in the amount of spam I was receiving; in fact, spam accounted for the majority of my messages. My laptop was supposed to be deleting spam as soon as it was received; it was no longer doing that, it seemed. Had it gone offline? Had there been a power failure at home (yes, I would learn upon my return)?

At dinner, we saw our dining companions again and asked about their time in Skagway. They’d taken the Yukon adventure I’d considered taking and had enjoyed themselves. I enjoyed tonight’s meal of a fish cake, steak with collard greens, strawberry bisque and another Gold Rush Baked Alaska. Everything was good, as usual. For our evening entertainment, Bill, Barb and I went to the Vista Lounge to see comedian Billy Garan. Barb really enjoyed his act, while I thought he was OK. Unfortunately, I was trying very hard to fall asleep during the show. It wasn’t his fault; we had been so much on the go, and we were being forced up earlier than we might want to be due to the early sunrises, that I was quite sleepy.


June 12

As we approached Glacier Bay National Park, the sun was up very early once again. That contributed to my getting up around 5:30. I checked the e-mail on my iPad; the connection was slow, and most of the messages were spam, which I deleted quickly. We went for breakfast in the Lido restaurant around 7:30. Today, I changed my dining habit slightly: instead of the Special K cereal I’d been getting, I chose to eat Kellogg’s All-Bran Wheat Flakes with the rest of my meal.

The views of Glacier Bay were spectacular, and I wandered around the ship looking for good vantage points. I went up on deck 10 for a while, and then I moved to the bow.  I was wearing two jackets and a long-sleeve shirt, but it still felt cool there. The crew was serving hot Dutch pea soup to passengers, a longstanding Holland America tradition; judging from the number of cups taken, it was a successful tradition. I took a cup myself; it was indeed hot, hot and hearty.

Back inside, we caught the 10 AM showing of “Beneath the Reflections,” a short film about underwater life in Glacier Bay. Afterwards, I went up to the Exploration Cafe for a VitaminWater Zero bottle and a chocolate chip cookie, both of which were good. I then went to the shops on deck 3 and bought that model of the ship I had seen earlier in the cruise, as well as a map and DVD of the Inside Passage and the wildlife that would be seen there. This map was similar to one I already had, but this one was customized for Holland America, showing the routes its ships took through the Inside Passage. I gave my earlier map to Bill.

Back outside, the ship arrived at Margerie Glacier, one of the prime viewing opportunities in Glacier Bay. It still reached the water, unlike most of the glaciers that were in the area. We saw some calving, nothing huge, but it was enough to cause some decent-sized splashes. We could also hear the ice breaking off from the main glacier; it’s not an easy sound to describe. At one point, I saw a seal lounging on an ice floe, with hardly a care to the world. I got some good pictures of him or her. There were many seagulls flying about as well; some of them got pretty close to the ship. They were looking for easy handouts, no doubt; the ship’s captain made an announcement warning not to feed the seagulls. I could hear others talking about seeing moose and mountain goats on shore; I had seen an eagle in the trees earlier. At one point, I saw a small vessel near the glacier alongside of us. From my later review of my pictures, I believe it was the same ship that we’d used for our lunch and whale-watching cruise in Juneau.

Back in our room, we gathered on the balcony in Bill’s and my cabin for self-portraits with the glacier in the background. I took some as well, setting my camera up to take 3 pictures at a time (normal, underexposed, and overexposed) that I would combine later to create HDR or High Dynamic Range pictures. I took some of the three of them (Bill, Barb and Marie), and then Bill took some of the three of us (Barb, Marie, me). After that, we went to lunch. But we didn’t go to the Lido restaurant; instead, we went to Dive In, a burger and hot dog grill by the pool. It was quite busy there; many others had had the same idea. After we received our meals, we knew why it was so popular: the burgers were good.

We then went to the Vista Lounge for presentations on Glacier Bay from the park rangers and on the Tlingit people who used to live in Glacier Bay from a Huna Tlingit cultural guide. I found myself trying to nod off during her presentation, but it wasn’t from boredom. The others felt similarly sleepy. Marie said that the guide’s voice and manner were soothing and relaxing, and our bodies were responding accordingly. We went back up to deck 10 for more bottles of VitaminWater Zero prior to the presentation at 4. This was a repeat of the Tuesday presentation for those who were going onto land tours after the cruise. The others had missed that presentation because they were on their Misty Fjords cruise and flight, so they needed to see this; I did see it, but I had some questions and was looking for answers. Yes, I found my answers, and we were all informed about what we needed to do on Saturday and Sunday morning.

Back at the cabin, I opened up the box with the model of the ship and took some pictures of it. It was in one piece when I got it, and I hoped it would stay in one piece until it got home. The Styrofoam packaging would help with that, for sure. I made another e-mail check; there were over 100 e-mails, nearly all of them spam. I deleted them as fast as I could, but unfortunately, I deleted an e-mail from Amazon I didn’t mean to delete. It seemed to involve the change of a delivery date for an item I’d ordered. I was very upset when that happened, for I felt that was very important information to know. Fortunately, I could login to the Amazon site directly to see what it was about. And it was important: my order of The Complete Peanuts 1995-1996, originally scheduled for release on July 4, was now scheduled to be delivered next Wednesday. Problem: I wouldn’t be home next Wednesday, I’d be in Fairbanks, and I didn’t want the package sitting on the porch for two days. I feared it might NOT be on the porch when I arrived home. So I canceled the order. If it was indeed coming out next week, I could find it in a local bookstore (and I did).

By this time, we were heading out of Glacier Bay. It was time for the rangers and guides to return to park headquarters.  In the morning, a boat had come to the ship and delivered them, and now it was returning to pick them up. This was all done at speed; neither vessel was stopped. The NPS boat drew alongside and matched its speed with the ship, pulled up to one of the lower doors, and then the rangers and their equipment transferred over. One misstep, and someone could have ended up in the drink! Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and I watched with several others as the boat drew away and returned to park headquarters.  Back in the room, I reviewed the pictures I had taken today, once I had downloaded them to my iPad. They turned out fantastic. And I wasn’t done with the camera: several minutes later, we passed an area where a clear boundary in the ocean was visible between the glacier meltwater of Glacier Bay and the warmer and saltier waters of the Gulf of Alaska. That made for some good photographs.

Tonight was the second of two formal nights on board, so we got dressed up again for our dinner. As we went to dinner, I heard the sound of chimes. I looked around and then saw one of the uniformed crew striking chimes that he was carrying, summoning everyone to the dining room. I’d never been summoned with dinner chimes before. ASIDE: the famous NBC chimes derived from the use of dinner chimes. The chairs in the dining room had white slipcovers on them, giving a very elegant look to the tables. Two of our dining companions, Tom and Sue, were not with us this evening; they were booked at Pinnacle Grill. But Allan and Jody were there. It turned out that on the previous formal night, when we were at the Pinnacle Grill, they had observed their 25th wedding anniversary, and the waitstaff had given them a special celebration similar to the ones they gave for birthday observances. If we had been present that night, we would received our birthday celebration then, but we ended up receiving it the following night. As for the meal, everyone chose the same thing: Surf and Turf, filet mignon and lobster. It was very good.

After dinner, I was feeling sleepy, so I went back to the room, while the others attended the performance of “Rockin’ Roadhouse” in the Vista Lounge. I don’t believed they particularly cared for it; none of them were big country music fans. As for me, I laughed out loud when I found a towel monkey hanging by our balcony door.


June 13

I had to get up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. It was not dark outside, not at all. I would call it more of a late twilight. That was weird. I hadn’t experienced anything like that since visiting Finland in June 1998. The sun would rise around 4 AM, also very weird for me.

My uncle Bill was coughing; he had apparently come down with something. That was not good. It certainly wasn’t good for him, for he had to be feeling lousy. I feared catching what he had, so I started to carry around a bottle of hand sanitizer and use it frequently. My last cold had been in mid-April, two months earlier; I was not in the mind for a repeat.

Before we went to breakfast, I checked e-mail; most of it was spam, but there were some important messages, including messages from my ham radio club’s mailing list regarding what to do about one of our club transceivers that was malfunctioning: have it repaired or look for a new one. Afterwards, I looked outside and saw some mountains in the distance on the horizon. One of them was likely Mount St. Elias, the second-tallest mountain in Alaska.

We went for breakfast later than we had been going; this was a day at sea, and we didn’t have to get up for any shore excursions. I had the same items that I’d been having for the last few days, although I had replaced the Special K with All-Bran Whole Wheat Flakes; I also tried one of the sausage and egg muffin sandwiches; it was all right.

At-sea days tend to be be filled with more onboard activities and presentations, for obvious reasons. One such presentation was in the morning in the Vista Lounge; the topic was on the 11 different Indian cultures of Alaska. We learned that that the Eskimo people in Alaska prefer being known by their tribal names than a collective name like Inuit. We learned a few other things that, as of the time I was writing this, I no longer remembered distinctly.  After the talk, we went briefly through the stores, which were very crowded due to big clearance sales; I didn’t see anything that appealed to me.  Afterwards came another trip to the Exploration Cafe for a cookie and a bottle of VitaminWater Zero; I would save this bottle for use on the train to Anchorage tomorrow.

The early part of the afternoon was dedicated to packing. We had to designate one of our bags as “Meet Me In Fairbanks” and put in there anything we didn’t expect to use on the land trip or didn’t need during the land trip. My suit jacket, my ship model, and my canvas tote bag were among those items, as were my long-sleeve shirts and my fleece jacket and one pair of shoes. We also had to pack our carry-on (in my case, that was the backpack I had bought in Skagway) and our “Meet Me Tonight” bag (in my case, the bag I carried onto the airplane). The bags had to be out in the hallway by midnight.

The 5K walk that was On Deck For A Cure began shortly after 2 PM. At 2, those of us who were participating had gathered in the Northern Lights nightclub for brief formalities, and then we walked up to the Promenade deck to begin our walk.  It would be 9 laps around the deck; that would constitute 3 miles or 5 kilometers. Figuring that it would be chilly on deck, I wore a long-sleeve shirt underneath my T-shirt. Suddenly, we were under way! We stayed together for most of the first lap and gradually started to spread out on subsequent laps. There were some places where we got hit by strong winds; there was another location where the strong odor of varnish could be smelled. Bill was carrying his camera, and he would take pictures of us on occasion. Now when I signed up for the walk, I did not specify anyone for whom I was dedicating my walk, but now, as I was doing the walk, I had decided that I would dedicate it to those relatives of mine who had had cancer and had passed on as well as to a former school classmate who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer (and who would report the following week that she had completed her final round of chemotherapy). After lap 4, I took a water break; after lap 7, I snacked on a cookie. And around 3:05, Bill and I completed lap 9. We had done it!

After the walk, we all went up to the Lido deck to eat at the taco bar. We got there fairly late, so the guacamole was all gone. I took more of other items to compensate, but I missed that guacamole. I got a Diet Coke at the Lido bar. Afterwards, we went to the main restaurant to get some ice cream.  While there, I got a scare: I couldn’t find one of my wallets! It was not in the pocket where I expected it to be.  I got scared and went back to where we had sat for lunch; it wasn’t there. I went back to the bar; nobody had turned anything in. I headed for the elevator to go down to the Front Office to report the missing wallet, but before I got there, I found the wallet; I had put it in the pocket where I normally keep a wallet, which was NOT the pocket where I was keeping it on the trip. Initially, I was relieved, but that was followed by intense anger for putting that wallet in the wrong pocket.  I did have some ice cream, but I didn’t enjoy as much as I should have. Still, the important thing was that it wasn’t lost.

For the rest of the afternoon, we finished our packing. I also changed my clothes for dinner, as my sweaty shirt from the walk wouldn’t have made for good dining room apparel. Shortly after 6, I went down to the Photo Gallery to pick up the DVD sets we’d ordered on the first night, the ones that my sister had given as birthday gifts. I was under the impression that the set would consist of two DVD’s, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Glacier Bay DVD would also be included. I picked up both sets of DVD’s, for Bill was feeling worse and was lying down. Before we went to dinner, I started watching the Cruise Highlights DVD; this was actually made during this cruise, with shots of people boarding, our departure from Vancouver, the galley tour from Monday, the Indonesian Crew Show from Wednesday, a tour of the bridge, etc. Unfortunately, it didn’t have an example of the birthday celebrations performed by the Indonesian waitstaff. No, I didn’t see any of us in the video.

Tonight was our final dinner of the cruise, our final time to see our waitstaff and possibly our dinner companions as well. The meal was great, as usual. We used it as an opportunity to give our servers some extra gratuities beyond what was covered in the service fees charged to our accounts (we would do the same with our room stewards). After we left, we went through the Photo Gallery like we usually did. I showed everyone the picture of me that had been taken on deck 10 in front of Margerie Glacier, wearing my jacket and my Tigers World Series 2006 wool hat. The pictures from our boarding were still there, too. Marie decided to buy these pictures, some of which would become birthday presents for me. That was very nice of her. Before retiring for the evening, I took some pictures of the setting sun from our balcony.


June 14

This morning, we had to wake up very early; we had to leave the ship at 6:10 and catch our train to Anchorage. To accommodate these early departures, breakfast would begin serving at 5 AM. I was partially awake when I heard Marie calling through our shared cabin door, “It’s 15 after 5!” Startled, I checked my watch; it was only 4:15. But given our need to get up early, I decided that I was up. Having the sun shining brightly outside helped with that.  We were nearing Seward, and I took a few pictures as we approached.

We were in the Lido restaurant shortly after 5. I took a bit less for my meal than I had been getting; it was still good. It was an enjoyable last meal on board. I did my final e-mail check, using all but 4 minutes of my online package. I switched back to the MiFi, but it was a weak 3G signal, not good for anything.

By 6, we were at the Vista Lounge, ready to be given the order to leave the ship. I believe we were among the first passengers to leave, as our departure for Anchorage was among the earliest. After 6:10, we received the order to proceed out, then down the gangway one last time. Our cruise was now officially over. But the land part of this Land+Sea journey had just begun. We walked through the Seward cruise terminal and onto the Alaska Railway car for our experience aboard the Scenic Cruise Train. 

The trip would take about 5 hours from Seward to Anchorage. It was a very scenic ride, one with plenty of opportunities for taking pictures. There were several places where the waters by the train tracks were very still, leading to many opportunities to take pictures where one would have a hard time telling which was the original and which was the reflection. From our table, we saw an eagle in flight and two moose in the distance. I might have gotten a picture of one of the moose.  Closer to Anchorage, we saw some Dall sheep high above the tracks on the rocky hillside.  We rode along Turnagain Arm for a long ways; the tide was out, so the inlet was mostly mud flats. Due to the high tidal variation and the presence of those mud flats, nearly all boat traffic was prohibited, our guide said.

Shortly before noon, we pulled into Anchorage and boarded a bus that would take us to the hospitality center. It was really the convention center, but today it was being used as a temporary rest area for passengers and travelers arriving in town before their hotel rooms were ready. Those wouldn’t be available until 3:15. Now we were scheduled to go on an excursion to visit Portage Glacier and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. That would leave at 1:15, but from where, we didn’t know. For three of us, it wouldn’t matter from where it left, because they decided they weren’t going. Bill was feeling really lousy and just wanted (and needed) to rest and recuperate, while Marie and Barb were just tired and wanted to rest as well. I still felt like going, so I did. I learned that it would be leaving from the hotel, so I’d have to go there with my bag; the hospitality center would be closed upon my return. So I walked over to the hotel, the Westmark Anchorage, and had lunch at the hotel restaurant. I had a reindeer burger, which tasted like — beef, not chicken. I finished in plenty of time to make the bus.

Our bus took us through Anchorage and down to the Seward Highway. The railroad from Seward paralleled the Seward Highway for much of the way, so the scenery was very familiar from a few hours earlier. I recalled seeing the ruins of a 50-year old house sunk into the ground; that was what was left of a house that sank after the 1964 earthquake. It was so severe that the town of Portage was completely wiped out. We turned off the highway and drove a short distance to Portage Glacier. We stopped at a dock there to board the Ptarmigan, which would take us on Portage Lake to see the glacier. This was the closest glacier to Anchorage, which explained its popularity. The boat had two decks; I spent most of my time on the upper deck. As we set sail, I could see some kayakers out on the deck, as well as one paddleboarder.  The glacier was not immediately visible; we had to motor out and around some rocks before we saw it. And there it was. I could not say how large it was relative to the other glaciers I had seen, but it was indeed big. I didn’t notice a lot of calving, but there was some. After one of those instances, the boat started rocking and rolling. I had to hold on to the railing to avoid being knocked to the deck.

After the glacier cruise, we got back onto the bus and went to the nearby Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The center specializes in rehabilitating injured animals and returning them to the wild as well as taking care of those who are unable to be returned to the wild. I figured this would be my best chance of seeing wildlife up close on this trip, and I certainly got that chance. There was a viewing platform for observing bears in their large enclosure. I got to see three grizzly bears and one black bear. With the zoom lens on my camera, it was almost like I was close enough to touch them. But I wasn’t. That would have been an incredibly bad idea, for if I had, I would have been their supper.  On a nearby tree or post, I saw an eagle looking around and being majestic. He presented some excellent photo opportunities.  As I walked around, I observed some elk and some caribou, as well as some moose. Over behind the gift shop, there was a disabled eagle (damaged wing, unable to return to the wild) in its cage, still looking around and being observant. It, too, presented some great photo opportunities.

It was time to reboard the bus for the trip back to Anchorage. It should have taken an hour, but it took more like two, for traffic was backed up, stop and go, for most of the trip back. It wasn’t obvious what the problem was. Once we returned to the hotel after 7:30, the trip desk clerks said that there had been a fatal accident on the Seward Highway and that we had been caught in its aftermath. Now I had to get to my room, but I didn’t know where it would be. The others would have checked in some four hours earlier.  I went to the front desk, and it turned out that they had left my key there at the front desk. Our rooms were on the 14th floor, next door to each other. They were wondering what had happened to me; I explained about the accident and the bad traffic backup. Now we could go for supper.

None of us felt like going anyplace else but the hotel restaurant. But that was all right, for the food was decent enough, if a bit pricy. I had salmon chowder for an appetizer and fish and chips for the main course. The chowder was very good, but the fish and chips were just OK. Now for the rest of the evening, what would we do? In the case of Barb and myself, we would rest. For Marie and Bill, though, it turned into a trip to the emergency room. That was the only medical care available on a Sunday night, but given that we were traveling, it was necessary. While they were away, I went to sleep. There was nothing else I could do, and I was tired. At one point, I woke up in the middle of the night, and Bill was back in the room, asleep or trying to sleep on his bed. That was a good sign.


June 15

I woke up around 4:30 to make sure that I would be awake in time for our departure. We had to have our bags outside by 6:30 and catch the bus to the train station at 8:15.  So that meant an early breakfast. Unfortunately, nearly everyone else was in the same situation, so there was a long line to be seated at the restaurant.  I ended up passing on breakfast at the restaurant and eating an Atkins peanut butter bar in the room.  And that worked.

We boarded the bus for the train station at 8:15. The station wasn’t very far away, but the driver took a roundabout route to get there. Even then, we were delayed for a few minutes in reaching the station; we parked alongside the curb for several minutes. But eventually, we proceeded to the station to board the McKinley Explorer. This was one of Holland America’s special railroad cars attached to a regular Alaska Railroad train for the trip to Denali National Park. We got underway a little bit late at 9:26 AM. Today, the seats all faced forward, unlike yesterday where half of them faced rearward.  The cars had wrap-around windows that went up to the roof, which guaranteed an excellent viewing experience. There were also outdoor observation platforms at the back of each car, which provided an even better viewing experience (no window to interfere with taking pictures).

Shortly after departing the train station, we passed by an Air Force base and saw an F-22 stealth fighter taxiing. Not long afterwards, we saw that fighter jet take off and immediately go into a 90 degree bank as the pilot flew to who knows where.  We saw two moose scampering in the distance; unfortunately, I was unable to get a picture of them. We saw a bald eagle flying alongside the train. We passed through the town of Wasilla, home to former governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The family compound was visible from the train, although I never got a good sight of it. I did see that gasoline was $3.28 at the Holiday and Tesoro stations in town. though. That was quite a bit higher than in Detroit.

There was a forest fire burning near the town of Willow, and it produced quite a bit of smoke.  That interfered with our view to some extent; there was even a time when the air conditioning was shut off in our train car to keep from pulling smoky air inside the train car.  We saw some firefighters alongside the tracks; we also got to see a helicopter filling a bag with water from a river or creek, then flying off to dump it on the fire. I got pictures of that; those would be unusual pictures.

It is said that only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park, or perhaps to this part of Alaska, get to see the tallest peak in North America, one known by multiple names: Denali, Mount McKinley, or simply the Mountain. Around mile marker 224, we became members of the 30% Club, as we got our first views of the Mountain. And those first views turned into fantastic views of the Mountain from scores of miles away. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky or around the Mountain.

As we traveled northward, I followed our progress with a guide to the ride that was sold on board; I bought mine yesterday on the Seward-Anchorage ride. They sold some other things on board as well, including a water bottle filled with soda pop that could be refilled indefinitely while on that train; I bought one of those. And I drank from that water bottle while we had lunch on the lower level (a bowl of salmon chowder and a bowl of reindeer chili).

Not long after lunch, the train started traveling very slowly. It continued that way for several miles, and then it ground to a halt. We didn’t move for what seemed like hours.  What had happened? Apparently, due to the high temperatures, the rails had bucked and developed a kink. If it wasn’t too severe, a train could go very slowly over the kink, but this one was bad enough to prevent all travel. We could have derailed and had a bad accident. The rail was being repaired while we and two other trains waited to the south. Finally, it was repaired, and we could continue our journey. But arrival at the scheduled time of 4:40 was out of the question. In fact, we arrived at 7:30 and were taken by motor coach to our destination, the McKinley Chalet Resort.

Our first order of business upon arrival was to check at the tour desk, because our delay had caused us to miss an excursion scheduled for 6 PM, a wilderness experience and dog cart ride. Rescheduling was not an option, as we had another event scheduled for the only other available time; the only option was a refund, which the tour desk processed. It was disappointing that we wouldn’t be going on that excursion; then again, the rest we gained as a result would do us good. We had supper at the main restaurant of the lodge; I had crab bisque and a salmon spinach salad, both of which were very good. So was the dessert.

Back in our room at cabin R, the bedroom had only one king-size bed. I let the still-ailing Bill have that room, while I offered to sleep on the couch, which happened to be a sofa bed.


June 16

It definitely did not get dark at Denali National Park at this time time of year. That contributed to my awakening around 4:30 and getting up by 5:15. But I had a need to get up early: we had an early bus to catch. Our Tundra Wilderness Tour bus would depart at 7, and we had to eat and finish our breakfast before then. Instead of eating in the main restaurant with its $13 Continental breakfast buffet and $18 hot breakfast buffet, we got our breakfast items at the Grizzly Grind (in my case, a sausage & egg biscuit sandwich and a bottle of apple juice) and ate them in the lobby.

Shortly before 7, we boarded the park bus designated as Tour 9 for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. Our driver and guide was Tom Turk (so said the nameplate at the front of the bus). This bus was a converted school bus, not a motor coach; no restrooms were on board. There would be 3 or 4 stops during the tour for taking care of necessities. We left the McKinley Chalet and stopped briefly at the Princess Denali Lodge to pick up a few more passengers, and then we were on our way into the park. The bus was nearly full, but it wasn’t completely full; there were a few vacant seats and a few extra box snacks.

Once past the Visitor Center area, there is only one road in the national park, the Park Road, extending 92 miles into the interior. We were not going all the way to the end of the road; we would be turning around near the 60-mile mark. And past the 15-mile mark, the road was gravel. It was also free of traffic other than park buses, other than the occasional vehicles from campers. This kept the park as pristine as possible, making sure that what was wilderness stayed wilderness. Now how could an area that had a road through it be called wilderness? By defining the wilderness such that the road was not included, that’s how. If we were to stop and step off of the roadway, we’d be in the wilderness.

As we rode along the road, we were told to be observant for wildlife. Tom said he would watch as best he could, but his top priority had to be watching the road in front of him as he drove the bus. And there were places where the road was narrow and had a sharp drop-off with no guardrails. And what did we see during our tour? We saw Dall sheep high on the mountainside. We saw several caribou out and about. At one point, high above a gravel-filled stream bed, we saw a grizzly bear — a mama bear leading her four cubs.  They were not easy to see, even with a telephoto lens. I had a lens with a maximum focal length of 250 mm, and the bears were hard to spot. However, Tom was equipped with a video camera with a longer zoom lens, so he was able to zoom in more closely and show the bears on the video monitors above each seat. That was a great help.

Since this was Denali National Park, one would think there would be opportunities to see the Mountain. And one would be correct, for we did get to see Denali on several occasions. The first time, the mountain was mostly covered by clouds, though the lower elevations were visible. For the other occasions, the clouds had disappeared, and we could see the entire mountain in all its glory, including the north summit and the taller south summit, along with the valley in between.

There were a few stops to get out, take some pictures, and use the restrooms. I availed myself of these opportunities, as it was a wise thing to do. I had no desire to feel miserable during the intervals between rest stops. One of these stops was at Toklat River (around mile marker 50), where Alaska Geographic had a bookstore. Here, I would buy two books, including one called “The Spirit of Alaska”, a book of photography and poetry by local artist Jimmy Tohill. Guide Tom had recited one of those poems during our trip, and I was inspired to buy the book.

As we drove onward, we saw a vehicle on the side of the road with people out in the field taking pictures of the wildflowers. This was a photographic program put on by the Murie Science and Learning Center, Tom explained. They were enjoying the experience, undoubtedly. Hopefully, their picture-taking experience would not be interrupted by a bear. A few miles farther on, we did see another bear foraging in the distance; not long afterwards, we saw a caribou looking very intently in the direction of that bear. I do not know if the bear was aware of the caribou; I know the reverse was definitely the case.  Were we about to see an example of Denali free-range caribou (bear-claw lickin’ good)? No, it didn’t appear we would.

We drove on past Highway Pass and to the turnaround point. Here, there was an opportunity to take pictures; more specifically, there was an opportunity to have your picture taken with the Mountain in the background. I took a picture of Bill, Marie and Barb with the Mountain in the background, and then Bill took a picture of Marie, Barb and me with the Mountain in the distance. We got back on the bus for the return drive, and way off in the distance, high upon a ridge, we could see a caribou. His or her antlers were very prominent against the sky. We moved a little bit down the road, but then we stopped. There was a bear very close to the bus, possibly the very same bear we saw with that caribou. Everyone got very quiet so that we didn’t disturb the bear. He presented an excellent photo opportunity for me and the others as he passed by. No, I didn’t get a close-up like the ones at the Alaska Wildlife and Conservation Center on Sunday afternoon, but this was Wild Kingdom! This was Nature, pure and unadulterated!

Our last big wildlife encounter took place on the return trip. A moose was in the middle of the road, and we had to stop to avoid hitting her. She did move off to the side, and we got some pictures before she moved off, possibly to rejoin her calves. Near the end of the tour, guide/driver Tom passed around two items. The first was a picture booklet of the highlights of the tour, prepared especially for those who took the Tundra Wilderness Tour and not available elsewhere. The second was an order form for a DVD of the highlights of the tour, along with a coupon for $10 off of the order.  Bonus: the DVD would include specific examples of the wildlife seen on today’s tour and captured by the guide’s video camera. Given what we had seen today, that would make for a spectacular addition to the standard DVD content. I filled out my order blank and gave it to Tom as we left the bus. it would take 2-3 weeks for us to receive the DVD.

When we returned to the lodge, I was sorry the tour was over but glad to get off of the bus. My rear was very sore from the seats, or maybe from sitting on the seat belt buckle. Also, I’d developed a crick in my back from turning to get the best photo opportunities. While the others took the lodge shuttle bus back to our cabins, I stayed at the main building and spent some time in the gift shop, looking for gifts for my nieces and nephew. I was successful. The main building was on top of a small rise, and I walked down the hill to where our cabin was. As I passed by one of the shuttle stops, I saw my uncle Bill waiting there. He was feeling well enough to go for a short walk on one of the walking paths in the area. I decided to go back to the cabin and download my pictures to the iPad. As I was doing that, I turned on the TV. There were tourist information channels such as the Denali Channel and the Alaska Channel, filled with short features on many of the places we had visited on this trip. There were information channels for the lodge, containing such things as the weather report and the departure time for the various buses. There was also a Women’s World Cup game featuring the US and Nigeria, which was taking place in Vancouver. I hadn’t been able to watch the World Cup on the trip, so I kept the game on and was treated to a 1-0 USA victory.

For supper this evening, we would go to the Gold Nugget saloon and be treated to dinner theater: “The Music of Denali”. First, the dinner: salad, biscuits, mashed potatoes, succotash (no word on whether or not it had been sufferin’), beef brisket and baked salmon, with house-baked apple crisps for dessert. It was good, although I had had better brisket elsewhere. Afterwards came the show; the waiters and servers for our meals were the performers in the show, the subject of which was the first ascent of Denali. The audience participated whenever the song “Land of the Midnight Sun” was sung; it wasn’t easy keeping those hand movement straight! Afterwards, we went back to our cabins and turned in.


June 17

We didn’t have to get up as early this morning as yesterday, but I was still up around 6:30. Blame the sun for that. We had to get our bags about by 8 so that they’d be picked up and waiting for us at Fairbanks, where we would be finally reunited with our “Meet Me In Fairbanks” baggage. We had plenty of time to eat our breakfast in a leisurely manner before we caught our 9:30 motor coach to Fairbanks.

I noted that our travels would no longer take us westward. That meant that the farthest westward I had ever been would be the turnaround point on yesterday’s Tundra Wilderness Tour. The way I figured it, I had now been a little more than halfway around the world in terms of longitude (150.2 degrees West here, and 39.1 degrees East for the House of Baha’u’llah in Mazra’ih, Israel, or 189.3 degrees overall).

Despite a brief delay caused by construction on the George Parks Highway, we made good time heading to Fairbanks. There was a rest stop in the town of Nenana, where we stopped at a cultural and visitor center devoted to Native culture. We could use the facilities here (and we did), we could buy snacks and drinks here (I bought a can of V8), and we could buy gifts (I bought a DVD featuring scenes of the Arctic). We continued northward. At one point, Marie said she thought she saw the Mountain in her window, and she was right: we had seen Denali unencumbered by clouds for a third straight day. The bus pulled off at a scenic viewpoint, where we were still able to see the Mountain. It would probably be the last time we would see it on our trip.

Soon, we were driving into Fairbanks. We passed by the airport and then took some side streets to reach the home of the Riverboat Discovery, which we would be riding this afternoon. Before we boarded the paddlewheeler, we had lunch on shore: beef stew, roasted vegetables (the grilled corn on the micro-cob was great), apple pecan salad, and a German chocolate brownie. There was a short period after the meal and before boarding where we could visit the gift shop or brave temperatures of -40 (F or C, they’re the same) in the 40 Below Room. There wasn’t anything in the gift shop that struck me, and the line for the 40 Below Room was too long (and I had had my share of 10 Below weather this past winter).

After the meal, we boarded the Discovery III, third boat to bear the name Discovery in the company’s history. It was a family-owned company; the founder had been a riverboat pilot in Alaska in the 1930s and ‘40s, and when the business dried up, he converted his boat to a tourist boat and started taking passengers along the river. Judging by the number of people on board, the business was doing very well with the 3rd and 4th generation family members.  We found seats on the lowest deck as we got under way. As we cruised down the river, we could see some very nice homes, including modern log cabins. There were three highlights of the cruise: a demonstration of a bush pilot taking off and landing on the river in his floatplane; a stop at the kennel for mushing dogs founded by the late Susan Butcher, 4-time winner of the Iditarod race, and still operated by her family; and a lengthy stop at the Chena Indian Village, where we disembarked and got to see several examples of how the Athabaskan people lived prior to and after contact with Europeans — their buildings, their clothing, how they smoked their salmon, etc. I found it all very enjoyable. The dogs at the kennel were really enjoying themselves as they played and trained. Some of the dogs went on a training run, pulling an ATV behind them and getting to play in the river afterwards. On the return trip, Butcher’s daughter Tekla joined us on board, signing copies of the children’s book “Granite” (about the lead dog during the Iditarod wins) that her mother had written shortly before passing away. I bought a copy to give to my niece Heather, who was about to start her career as a teacher and was building up a collection of children’s books.

After returning to the dock, we reboarded our motor coach for the short drive over to the Westmark Fairbanks hotel. On the way there, we passed by a Denny’s — the world’s northernmost Denny’s, as it turned out. The driver said the northernmost McDonald’s was in Fairbanks, as well. Maybe it was the northernmost one in the US and North America, but definitely not for the world; I had visited the world’s northernmost McDonald’s in Rovaniemi, Finland in 1998 (it may have since lost that status to one in Russia). We arrived at the hotel around 6 but didn’t have much time to settle in an rest, for our final excursion of the trip was coming up.

We had to be back in the lobby to catch the bus for the Alaska Salmon Bake and Show at 6:55. This took us to Pioneer Park, which contained a collection of historic buildings from the Fairbanks area. The salmon bake was mostly an outside affair with some indoor seating; we chose to sit indoors. The food was all right, although the consensus was that the meal at the Gold Nugget Saloon at the McKinley Chalet was better. We then walked over to the Palace Theater for that night’s performance of the “Golden Heart Revue” (“Golden Heart of Alaska” referring to Fairbanks). The cast did a good job portraying some of the characters of early Fairbanks. One of the performers looked very much like my niece Heather. Unfortunately, the hard seating started to irritate my rear end before the end of the show, putting a slight damper on my enjoyment of it. When the show ended, we boarded the bus back to the hotel.

Back in our room, I discovered that the hotel’s WiFi connection was very poor on the 5th floor. I had to go to the lobby to get a good connection. One of the e-mails waiting for me was from Delta Air Lines; it was time to check in for tomorrow’s flight and print boarding passes. I decided to do that tomorrow, once I was able to confirm everyone’s luggage situation.


June 18

There was no time pressure this morning; there were no early excursion buses to catch. I was up around 6:30; I took a shower and put on my clothes. By 8:30, we were all up. My first order of business this morning was to go to the business center in the lobby to print out our boarding passes. As it turned out, only Barb and Marie had to pay for their checked bags; Bill and I didn't have to. I took care of that while I printed the passes.  Back in the room, I finished packing my bags. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to fit both the big canvas tote bag and the backpack in my suitcase, but I managed.

Since there were few if any alternatives near the hotel, we decided to bite the bullet and partake of the hotel restaurant’s breakfast buffet. Yes, it was expensive, but it was good. Afterwards, I was quite full; I had considered going on a walk earlier, but I didn’t feel like it now. So my uncle Bill went on a walk almost to downtown.

Our checked luggage was outside our rooms before 11, when it would be picked up and delivered to the airport. Our flight was scheduled for 9:30, so we had a long wait ahead of us.  We arranged for a late checkout from our rooms, enabling us to stay there until 2. At 2, the lobby was crowded, and there weren’t enough seats for all of us to sit together. Bill and I ended up going outside to sit on the benches for an hour or so.  It turned out that most of those in the lobby were waiting for the 3 PM airport shuttle, so spaces eventually freed up in the lobby. We found four comfortable chairs and camped out in them, waiting until the 6:30 shuttle.

We could still use the hotel WiFi connection while we were there, so that’s what I did. And because I did, I was able to receive an e-mail from Delta: our flight would be delayed an hour and fifteen minutes.  Then I received a later e-mail: it would now be delayed until after midnight. No need to hurry to the airport when we had comfortable chairs at the hotel. Now what would we do for supper? Eat at the airport? There were only two dining options out there, neither of which were highly recommended. Eat at the hotel restaurants? We’d lose our comfortable seats. Now we’d seen another group receive a pizza delivery in the lobby; that inspired us to order our own. It wasn’t the world’s greatest, but it satisfied our hunger.

We took the 9 PM shuttle to the airport, and after checking in and clearing security, we proceeded to gate 5 to wait some more.  Delta provided sandwiches, snacks and drinks for everyone due to the delay, which I understand was caused by weather delays elsewhere.  And so we sat. The clock went past midnight, and the sun was still up. But not long afterwards, we were able to board the plane. Our return home had commenced in earnest.


June 19

This was a red-eye flight, and it wasn’t going to be comfortable. I was in the middle seat, and both seats on either side of me were occupied. I couldn’t lean back to get comfortable, nor could I tilt my head back; the cushion wasn’t high enough. All I could do was lean forward against the seat back in front of me — which held a video screen. I could still feel the spots where I had contacted the screen several days later. I didn’t bother to take my jacket off before sitting down, thinking I might get chilly on the plane; instead, I got warm. At least I could roll the sleeves up on that jacket. And on top of all of that, it never got dark outside. I don’t know if the sun ever officially set during that flight.

Some five hours later, we were in Minneapolis. While the others in my party waited for everyone else to leave the plane, I got off before them. I hadn’t used the restroom since Fairbanks, and I needed to go very badly. Fortunately, the restroom wasn't far away.  By the time I got back, the others had exited. I walked back to get them, and we found a place to sit for a bit so they could take care of their necessary business.

We had arrived at concourse D, but the flight to Detroit would leave from concourse F.  We had a bit of a walk ahead of us. There were times when we wondered if we should have asked for a cart to transport us, or at least one of us, but with frequent rest stops, we managed. Now thanks to the delay in leaving Fairbanks, we only had a short layover of an hour and a half. We found some seats at the gate and waited. I think we would have preferred to have had more layover time in Minneapolis rather than the delay in Fairbanks; we could have sat down to a proper breakfast in Minneapolis.

Now I had had difficulty with my carry-on on the first flight; it would not fit under my seat, so I had to stow it in an overhead compartment a few rows forward. When there was a call for volunteers to gate-check their larger bags, I decided I would do that. I took out my battery packs, my iPad and my camera bag, and when I arrived at the bottom of the jetway, I dropped my bag there. It seemed weird not to have my huge carry-on with me at my seat; it also felt liberating, as I didn’t have to contend with its weight (some 25 pounds). I had an aisle seat, which was much more enjoyable than that middle seat. The flight was fairly short, an hour and 9 minutes or so of flight time. There was no need to visit the restroom during that short trip.

By 12:37, we were down on the ground. Once again, we stayed back and allowed the others to exit before us. That let us see our bags being removed from the plane, and it was comforting to know that they weren’t lost. After retrieving our bags, we waited for the shuttle bus to the green lot. We waited — and we waited — and we saw what looked to be multiple buses from the private lots and the hotels arriving, but finally we saw a bus for the green lot. Soon, we were at our vehicle and on the road. It was lunchtime, and we stopped for lunch at the Leo’s Coney Island close to my condo. I was starting to feel exhausted; my trip was nearly at an end. The others still had to drive across town, but I was almost home. And a half-hour later, I was home. The major unpacking would wait until tomorrow. Three days later, I would be back at work. My vacation was over.


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©2015 R. W. Reini.    All rights reserved.

Written by Roger Reini
Revised June 29, 2015