Alaska: To Seward and a Big Ship

Mount Denali south face from Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge

Sun. Sept 2nd:  Early breakfast then we were herded onto another bus, this one was called a  motor-coach, to take us to Seward and our ship. At least this ride was comfortable. We had ten hours with another Alaskan tour guide to tell us what we are seeing as we headed south on AK-3 past Anchorage to Seward. Our first stop was for a wonderful brunch buffet at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.  (If we had known about such an early lunch we would have skipped breakfast at the lodge.) After we crossed the McKinley River we stopped again at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge for a spectacular view of the south facing summit of Mount Denali in the distance. This was the best view we had so far of the great mountain. It was shining bright white in the distance. Again the sun’s reflection off the new snow was almost otherworldly. The fact that we could see the peak at such a distance, attests to the size of this geological behemoth. 

As we continued on our drive, our guide started talking about wolverines in the area, who share their habitat with bears and other predators. Every time he said “wolverine kill site” or “the wolverines coming to get their share” and “wolverines are opportunistic when it comes to their diet,”  I again had images of Hugh Jackman with his horn-like spiky hair and ejecting swords for claws moving along the brush on two legs stalking his four legged prey.

Lake on the road to Seward

The weather was beautiful, sunny most of the trip. Each rest stop we visited afforded magnificent views and a chance to get out and stretch our legs. Just strolling along, taking in the scents and sites of Alaska, snapping photos of rivers and mountains, was amazing. Always felt like we re-boarded too soon. Our guide, who said he grew up in Alaska, shared a lot of Alaskan facts with us. Here are just a few:

  • The state bird is now the Spruce Grouse, not the Willow Ptarmigan, as our previous bus-driver/tour guide had informed us. (I just looked them up and both birds are in the Grouse family and native to Alaska, so take your pick.)
  • Gold mining is still going on in Alaska. The Klondike Gold Rush started in 1896 and continued for only three years.
  • Susan Butcher is the first woman to win the Iditarod. And just in case we didn’t know, he told us all about how the Iditarod was based on a dog sled run in 1925 from Nenana, which is further north on the rail line to Fairbanks, to Nome Alaska to deliver life saving serum to the isolated community that was suffering from a diphtheria outbreak. The hero of the story is Balto the lead sled dog who ran the final stretch into Nome. He has been immortalized with a bronze statue in Central Park, New York.
  • Don Sheldon [1921-1975] is the premier Alaskan Bush pilot. He pioneered the technique of glacier landings on Mount McKinley during the 1950s and 1960s. The book Wager the Wind is about his life.
  • And our guide told us that in just two short weeks, the cruise ships would stop coming to Alaskan ports, the buses and trains would no longer move thousands of tourists to and from Denali and other inland destinations every day. The Lodges near the park, and all the  shops and restaurants would lock their doors, pull down their shades, and shutter their windows for the season. And the whole area would resemble a ghost town until next spring.

We made several stops that made no sense. One was at the Foodmart in Cantwell and the other was a half hour stop for us to walk around a Fred Meyers department store in Wasalli about 35 miles from Anchorage. It was getting very warm by this time and none of us really wanted to stand in the parking lot, so we did as we were told and wandered around and up and down the aisles of the huge super department store, past the food items, into the pharmacy, ogled lawn furniture, and ended in the women’s clothing. It felt just like we were in any store in any place in America.

Back on the bus we took AK-1 Glen Highway south along the Knik Arm, the inlet that feeds into the Gulf of Alaska, toward Anchorage. JR commented that we had seen no semi trucks along this highway, or the previous road, which was unheard of on any highway in the lower 48. Such a beautiful drive so far. More Alaskan facts: Anchorage became a city in 1915.

  • Interior of Alaska, gets 65-76 inches of snow per year (not the 40-60 feet of snow per year that our guide spouted out).
  • You can always know your salmon by using the fingers of one hand. ThumbChumPointer , index – stick a finger in your eye – Sockeye, Middle longest – King Salmon, Ring finger – Silver Salmon and your Pinky – Pink Salmon.  Fishing as follows: Pinks run in July, Silvers in August, Trout fishing in September.

We made it through the city and did not stop at the Anchorage Museum, (like the web site said we would), but continued driving south on AK-1 now Seward Highway, which is a National Scenic Byway. We followed the Turnagain Arm, another inlet from the Gulf of Alaska, to Portage, the road hugging the shore, with the water on our right as we sped south-east.  Our guide told us about the Bore Tide which is a series of waves, some as high as ten feet, that are caused by the long distance the tide has to travel when it is coming back after low tide. We learned that the water in the Arm was 20-30 feet deep but the floor of the bay consists of over 100 feet of silt and mud.  We could see mountains across the bay, sun blinking off the waves, the water a steel gray, due to the constant churning of the mud and silt. We also learned that every year people get stuck in the mud at low tide when they venture out on the flats. And if they are not rescued they will drown when the tide comes rushing back in. We were warned by our guide that if you need to be rescued it will cost you plenty, up to $40,000 since the rescuers have to use a pressure washer, which breaks the suction the mud and silt have on your legs, in order to free you. (I could not verify that amount. Me thinks our guide doth have trouble with the numbers, creating his own alternative facts.)

It was aggravating, not being able to open the bus windows as we sped along. I wished we were in our car, windows down, sun roof opened, experiencing the amazing breeze off the water and scents of the mud flats below mixed with the glacier snow on the distant mountains. We crossed the Tidewater Slough Bridge, which spans the soft muddy area known as the slough, that is flooded with each high tide, thus the bridge name.

Tidewater mud flats on road to Seward

As the road moved inland the scenery changed. We stopped at Canyon Creek Rest Areawhere we had a spectacular view of the valley and rivers below.  Soon we were again moving through the Alaskan wilderness into the Kenai Range, with mountains on both sides of us. With an average elevation of 3,000-5,000 feet, these mountains are much smaller than the Alaska Range, home of Denali. We passed numerous lakes, streams and rivers. Soon the peaks were no longer snow covered. At some point we started driving on AK-9 going south toward Seward. We drove past a sign that read Moose Pass then stopped at a pull-off to take in the view of the pristine turquoise waters of Kenai Lake. We read a plaque that said the blue green tone of the lake is due to the glacier water that feeds it. Each time I think I’ve seen the best Alaska has to offer, we come upon  another amazing masterpiece from our creator that takes my breath away. All I can do is stand in awe.

Holland Amnerica’s Noordam, our home for 7 days

We got to Seward around 6:00 pm and pulled into the lot at the port where the Noordam was docked waiting for us. We boarded with ease, showing our passes and passports as we moved through the entrance. We each found our state rooms on the Upper Promenade deck #4. We were in 4026, Ron and Rita in 4028, Gloria 4032 and JR and Jackie 4022.  (#4024 and #4030 were inside state rooms across the hall from us). Our State Rooms were small, like a camper, but we had a king bed, a love seat and a small desk with mirror, flat screen TV, a full bathroom with tub and the best thing ever, we had a balcony with two chairs. Our luggage was waiting for us on our bed, delivered earlier. But we had no time to unpack or get comfortable because suddenly an insistent loud beep beep beep, like a smoke detector on steroids, began blaring throughout the boat. Then a voice on the intercom instructed us that we must stay in our room as the Muster Drill commenced, crew members had to do their thing first. After about 15 minutes, the beeping started again and we were told to leave our cabins and go to the area designated for us, as directed by the persons wearing orange vests. We used the stairs and all ended up on deck 3 in area 2, where we had to stand for what seemed like forever as a uniformed officer, called names off a list identifying that each of us had complied. At one point we heard a scream accompanied by a loud noise. Someone had fallen on the deck. We also noted that five names called were not present. I don’t know what happened to these folks or why they didn’t obey orders, but only hoped we all did not have to suffer for their absence. We didn’t. After all the rest of us were present and accounted for we were told about the life boats that hung above our heads and life jackets under benches throughout the boat and how we were to behave in case of a real emergency. I did feel a little more confident than I do on an airplane, knowing that I cannot fly and will most likely die on impact if the plane goes down. At least on board this ship I felt that I would survive a little longer, having seen the Titanic, I know a huge vessel like this doesn’t go down in a minute. But survival still seemed iffy, considering the life boat situation. From what I could see, there still didn’t seem to be enough for all of us, even if each boat holds 100 people. I counted eight hanging on the port side (that is the left side of the boat when you are facing the front or the bow), times two, would mean there would be space for 1600 bodies. Later we learned that the Noordam’s capacity is almost 3,000. On this cruise there were approximately 2,700 souls, almost 900 of which were officers and crew. Maybe there are other boats, maybe the inflatable kind for those of us who traveled in steerage, whatever that might mean.

Drill over, we marched back to our rooms, only to turn around and head out for our dinner reservation at 8 pm, compliments of our AAA agent Greg McDonald, at the Cantellia Dining room on deck 9.  We were not dressed for the occasion, nor did we care. Tired and hungry we enjoyed our meal and especially appreciated the complimentary drink card we each had; up to $50 per day for drinks not part of the free fare offered at the Lido Market also on deck 9. We were all hungry and the food was excellent. Joe and I ordered a bottle of wine with our meal, – I think it was a red Cabernet Sauvignon – which we could not finish, so we took it back to our room for later.  Back in our room we had one last sip of wine before sinking into our king size bed. It was still light outside, but our bodies could not be tricked, we needed to sleep.

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