Whale-Watching in Comfort
"Ohmigod, Peter, grab the camcorder! Youíre not gonna believe what Iím seeing out here . . . ."
Such babbled excitement was the norm during our inland Alaskan cruise last July, aboard American West's sternwheeler, Empress of the North. Our voyage, which took in Sitka, Skagway, Juneau, Wrangell, Ketchikan and Petersburg, exceeded our expectations. Having been warned about driving rain, bone-chilling temperatures, giant blood-sucking mosquitoes and other unpleasantries, we had packed our "wellies," ponchos, bug spray and other survival gear; these items never left our stateroom.
Moreover, on board the 360-by 58-foot, 235-passenger Empress, we enjoyed the best of both worlds. My husband Peter and I love travel, animals, and new adventures. However, we are not the rugged type; our idea of the great outdoors is a sidewalk café. Or, in this case, it's gawking at breaching humpback whales from the comfort of our stateroom balcony, camera in one hand, a glass of pinot grigio in the other -- which is what American West offers. The ship itself is designed like an old-fashioned paddlewheeler; during the 19th century, hundreds of these steam-powered vessels plied Alaskaís inland waters. The Empress is brightly appointed with red, white and yellow wooden trim; wrought iron railings; a realistic-sounding digital calliope; and its signature bright red paddlewheel, visible from the window of the Paddlewheel Lounge.
Our 8-day cruise began in Sitka, where we arrived via an Alaska Air charter flight from Seattle. The weather was warm and partly cloudy; most of us doffed our jackets. Since we could not board our ship until 4:30pm, we toured Sitka, located on Baranof Island, on a bus provided by American West. Two hundred years ago, Russia exploited the region, driving out the Tlingit Natives and hunting sea otters almost to extinction. Until the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Sitka was the capital. Price for the 586,412 acres of land and ice: $7.2 million. Sitka's Russian roots remain evident today -- the best known landmark in this city of 8,800 is St. Michael's Orthodox church, replete with beautiful gilt icons and other Russian artifacts.
We also toured the Alaska Raptor Center, where injured eagles, falcons, owls and other birds of prey are rehabilitated and returned to the wild if possible. There we got "up close and personal" with the Center's mascot, a young bald eagle named Sitka.
Our Sitka overview concluded with demonstrations from the region's two main cultures. Russian dances performed by the all-female New Archangel (original name for Sitka) troupe, and then, in a reconstructed native lodge, Tlingit dancers twirled to pulsating drums against a backdrop of colorful totem poles.
As we finally boarded our ship, we were greeted by flutes of champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries. A nice beginning!
A Movable Feast
Each day brought new adventures, after which we were able to retire to our small but comfortable stateroom, rest, freshen up and enjoy drinks, hors d'oeuvres and marvelous entertainment in the Paddlewheel Lounge. (We absolutely loved Ty and Nonoy, the duo "Pacific Breeze.") In the Romanov Dining Room, executive chef Paul Lalone's menu might encompass poached salmon, baked halibut, Dungeness crab cakes, rack of lamb, and on our final gala evening, stuffed prawns, crab bisque, and perfectly cooked "surf and turf" followed by Baked Alaska, a cruise classic, especially appropriate for this occasion.
Speaking of "Baked Alaska," our cruise lent a new meaning to the term. We often wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts, and for a couple of days the weather was so balmy that I sunned myself on our verandah in my BATHING SUIT!
Among the many natural wonders we saw were the glaciers: Johns Hopkins glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm Fjord's South Sawyer Glacier, Mendenhall Glacier (in Juneau), and Le Conte Glacier.
To view Glacier Bay National Park, we boarded another vessel, the Four Seasons catamaran, as our own ship was not licensed to enter the national park. Braving the chill, we crowded along the railing as our cameras clicked away. Eagles swooped down over South Marble Island where Steller's sea lions lounged. Ivory-colored goats clambered up the sheer cliffs of "Gloomy Knob." A pod of black and white orcas (also called killer whales) frolicked in the jade green water. All this was framed by majestic, snow-capped mountains. Icebergs floated by as we approached Johns Hopkins Glacier, reached through a narrow passage inaccessible to larger ships.
Glaciers are awesome. Remnants of the Ice Age of 15,000 years ago, these huge formations are composed of ice, snow crystals and rock, packed together over the centuries. Glaciers resemble meringue, tinted a gorgeous shade of blue. The is because the snow crystals act as prisms, and the only color not absorbed is blue. As we gazed at Johns Hopkins glacier, we were treated to a rare sight: "calving," which is when huge chunks of ice break off the glacier with a loud crack, which resounds through the icy canyon like a gunshot.
Then we saw the whales. Humpbacks were everywhere -- breaching (how these 60,000-pound creatures managed to heave themselves out of the water is beyond me), spouting and rolling in the icy water, huge flukes held high. Even after we re-boarded our own ship, the cetaceans' acrobatic show continued. While we were dressing for dinner, our ship sailed into the middle of an enormous pod of humpbacks; there most have been several dozens of the magnificent creatures a few hundred yards away. One young whale kept breaching right outside our balcony, and I thought he was going to jump aboard! It all happened so fast I could not capture the action with my camera, but Peter caught it on video.
We did not expect the profusion of wildflowers, which practically explode in Alaska's short, intense summer: pinkish wild roses, lacy white yarrow, and fireweed -- the purplish-red roadside plant which can grow six feet high.
Human-made marvels? Alaska's gotíem. Perhaps our favorite port of call was Skagway, population 830. When gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1897, Skagway sprang up almost overnight. Although the gold was 600 miles to the north, Skagway was the jumping-off point. At one time this rough-and-tumble town claimed 75 saloons and 75 bordellos. Today, The Red Onion Saloon continues to operate as a bar (Alaskan Amber beer is delicious!). Upstairs, costumed "ladies of negotiable affection" lead visitors on a 15-minute tour of the former brothel, now a museum (complete with a ghost named Lydia), for $5. Back in the old wicked days, "business women" charged clients that same amount, preferably in gold, for a 15-minute "visit." If a session ran overtime, the customer had to fork over another fiver. According to our comedian bus driver, offspring resulting from these encounters were called "brothel sprouts."
Another entertaining and educational way to experience Skagway is the Streetcar Tour. We boarded a bright yellow vintage 1920s vehicle, which itself claims quite a history. The town's trolley company was founded in 1923 by German immigrant Martin Itjen, who wanted to impress visiting President Warren G. Harding. So he painted a car in bright colors and invited the Chief Executive to hop aboard.
Led by a lively young woman named Nicki, clad in period dress complete with bloomers, the yellow coach wound through Skagway. A drama major, Nicki regaled us with tales of Skagway's colorful history. The most infamous denizen was crime boss Soapy Smith, who swindled everyone in sight. Finally, folks got fed up, and Soapy was slain in a gunfight with Frank Reid, who also died in the duel. Both men are buried in the cemetery outside of town.
We also learned that Skagway experienced three economic booms: the gold rush, World War 2 (when 30,000 U.S. troops converged on the deep water port after Pearl Harbor), and, finally, tourism. Thousands of visitors, virtually all from cruise ships, converge on Skagway each year.
Later, we boarded the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, a reconstructed train to White Pass summit (elevation 2,865 feet). Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush to reach the Yukon, this narrow gauge railroad is an international historic civil engineering landmark. After taking hairpin curves through glorious scenery, we crossed the Canadian boarder into Fraser, British Columbia (passports and photo ID were required). There, we snapped photos and boarded buses for the trip back to Skagway. A sobering note was Dead Horse Gulch, where thousands of mistreated pack animals died during the frenzied rush to the Yukon. Our tour ended at Liarsville, a reconstructed mining camp and historical site, where guides regaled us with gold rush tales and the poetry of Robert Service. We even tried our hand at gold panning. (Since Skagway has no gold, a few imported flakes were provided.)
Juneau, the Alaska state capital, was another highlight. Well, not Juneau itself, an unattractive town with a nondescript capitol building. Moreover, "you can't get there from here" -- Juneauís longest road extends only 40 miles, making the city inaccessible by car. What did impress us was the Mendenhall Glacier, right in the city limits, and the Gold Creek outdoor salmon bake. How they manage to accommodate 950 hungry tourists per day is still a mystery, but they do it up right. After ordering drinks at the "saloon," we grabbed plates and queued up. The buffet also offered salads, ribs, chicken and cornbread, but we skipped most of that to concentrate on SALMON! The fish filets were roasted over alderwood fire, imparting a wonderfully smoky flavor, and topped with a brown sugar-based sauce. Afterwards, we walked up to the stream, where sockeye salmon were actually spawning.
Speaking of salmon, Ketchikan is the "salmon capital of the world." Formerly a rowdy gold rush town, Ketchikan is currently known for catching, canning, processing, and shipping salmon to all corners of the world. First, we visited Salmon Etc., at 322 Mission Street, where we purchased smoked salmon and halibut, reindeer sausage and an "ulu" knife. An ulu (pronounced "ooloo") features a razor-sharp, rounded blade topped with a bone or wooden handle. Developed centuries ago by Inupiat Eskimos for hunting, fishing and skinning, ulus are ideal for cutting onions and slicing pizza. They also make great gifts, just be sure to pack them in your CHECKED luggage!
After stashing our purchases on our ship, we strolled over to Creek Street, Ketchikan's red light district until 1954. Now the planked walkway houses gift shops, galleries, and cafés. At Parnassus book store at 5 Creek Street, I purchased a copy of Looking for Alaska, by Peter Jenkins, which truly captures the spirit of our 49th state.
Wood chips flew as we crowded into an outdoor theater to enjoy The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. Amid lively banter, two teams competed in chopping, sawing, pole climbing, log rolling and axe hurling (away from the audience, fortunately).
A jewel in Alaska's inland passage is the tiny town of Petersburg, called "Little Norway" because of its Scandinavian origins. Shortly after we docked, a group of costumed schoolchildren performed traditional Norwegian dances onboard. After disembarking, we explored the town, marveling at the tidy, painted houses with their lovingly nurtured flower gardens. We stuck our heads into the Sons of Norway Hall, the social center of this close-knit community of 3,060. There we met Heidi Lee, whose organization baked the pastries served after the youngster's dance performance. Our Petersburg sojourn concluded with the Clausen Memorial Museum, where we viewed a model Viking ship, the largest recorded king salmon, weighing in at 126 pounds, and a huge, mirrored lighthouse lens.
More impressive was the James and Elsie Nolan Center, in Wrangell. In this brand new museum, fascinating interactive displays traced the history of Alaska and of tiny Wrangell (population 2,600), known for its garnets, which local schoolchildren gather and sell. At the Center, we were invited to do a petroglyph rubbing (which required elbow grease), touch a variety of animal pelts and recognize the five kinds of salmon: king, silver (coho), pink, red (sockeye)and chum.
When our cruise concluded back in Sitka, we encountered our first cool, drizzly weather. Donning wind breakers and rain hats, we took a final turn through town before heading to the tiny airport to bid farewell to this ruggedly beautiful country. But one more surprise awaited us. Hours later, as our plane ascended over Seattle, a pale green curtain of light shimmered in the distance: The Northern Lights, aurora borealis, was waving goodby.
Photos Courtesy of Alaska Bureau of Land Management, American West Steamboat Company,
Celeste McCall, and Sally Thompson
A freelance food and travel writer based in Washington, D.C., Celeste McCall loves ships, past and present. A member of the Titanic Historical Society, she has embarked on more than a half dozen very modern voyages. She has visited ports of call including Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Hong Kong; sailed through the Panama Canal, explored the Volga, climbed the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu, and snorkeled in Belize.
A former writer and restaurant critic for The Washington Times, Celeste has contributed to local and national publications including Fodor's City Guide to Washington DC, Best Bets (an annual guidebook to DC), Caribbean Travel & Life, Porthole, The Washington Post, Foodservice Monthly, Lodging and Roll Call.
She is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, an international organization of women in the fields of food, restaurants and hospitality. When not traveling or writing, Celeste and her husband of 32 years, Peter, who shares her love of travel, like to read, lounge on the beach and cook out in their backyard. They dwell on Capitol Hill with their four cats: Eggplant, Artichoke, Gypsy, and Jesse. Celeste may be reached at email@example.com
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