Monday, July 11, 2016

Alaska 2016

It's been awhile!

Back in 2015 my wife and I were told of a family trip for a cousin turning 40. The trip was to be a cruise to Alaska. We pushed back our plans to go to Portugal by a year and decided to go on this adventure instead! We were able to invite friends on this trip as well, so we asked around and got a few takers to share in the trip with us.

The progression towards the beginning of a trip always seems the same: initial excitement and research and planning, then realizing the trip isn't for another year. Finally, and slowly, all the preparations are made: How many days are we going early to Seattle? What excursions are we doing? What's the daily average temp/precip? What's the rest of the family doing (since we can't snub them the entire time and do our own thing!)? The preparations phase still leaves a long time before the trip, a few months, those emails Starred in my Inbox, reminding me of how long I have to what. The day finally comes to start packing (which for me is two weeks before the trip!). And the day finally comes for us to take the dog to the kennel, secure everything at the house, and head to the airport!

We flew from IAD to SeaTac on Wednesday June 8th, a couple days before we were meeting everyone to go on the cruise. We figured a bit of quiet time before the boat might be required! This was to be Songbird's first cruise.

Mount Rainer

We landed, rented a car and began the short drive to Ashford, WA close to the Nisqually Entrance of Rainer. I'd rented a small cabin at Copper Creek Inn & Restaurant. The place looked amazing, Muir Cabin, tucked in a temperate rain forest, private hot-tub on creek. Surrounded by green forest, and wild flowers.

Sometimes expectations don't hold a candle to reality. Conceptually I imagined a cute cabin in the woods; reality blew away my conception, and replaced it with a lasting loving life-long impression. The peace of the place was overwhelming. The sound of the creek, swollen by recent rains, the smell of the forest, even the feel of the cool humidity pressed against the skin all imprinted this on my memory.

The cabin itself was stellar, very high quality with nice homey touches. The fireplace inside was much appreciated after sitting in the hot tub and needing to dry off!

Our first night there, we arrived and went to sleep seeing only darkness outside our door, but with the promise of beauty! We woke with excitement, brewed some coffee and had a morning soak in the hot tub, we ARE on vacation! After a leisurely morning we got ready for a day of hiking in Rainer, and on our way to the entrance stopped at Alexander's Lodge & Restaurant for a quick breakfast. The day was to be a cloudy day, and the forecast mentioned periods of rain, but this is Washington right?! Can't let that stop us. Though I was hoping it would clear enough for me to see the massif that I knew was hulking over us. We winded our way ever upward, passing a few overlooks and a few gorgeous cascading waterfalls by the road. The sky began to sprinkle on us, but we could still see mountains across the valley, so it wasn't totally socked in. No sign of THE peak though.

I had a vision in my mind of what this place was going to look like. I imagined a sunny day, with a field of wild flowers nodding in a  gentle breeze, the squeak of randy marmots, all over-shadowed by a massive ever visible hulking mass of the pinnacle of the mountain. While I knew the sun was wishful thinking, the rest I took for granted! As our elevation grew, patches of snow began appearing, by the time we got to Paradise, the ground was more snow than not!

Being the adventurous type, we weren't going to let a little snow get in our way! We went into the welcome center and noticed they rented snow shoes; just what we needed! So here we are in mid June, snowshoeing! Not on the East Coast anymore, that's for sure!

We made a fun day of tramping around on the Skyline Trail, though we by no means did the entire 5 mile loop. The upper section goes across a mountainside that we had no intention of falling off and snow shoes aren't as good as crampons and ice axes would've been! We got up fairly high, I saw a marmot (bigger and scragglier than expected), saw decent views back behind us down valley. We never did see Rainer, the clouds thickened as the day progressed, and a misty rain started falling a bit more incessantly. Blissfully sore and slightly soaked, we turned and made our way back down to the visitor lodge.

 After our hiking was done, we rode back down the mountain, stopping at the Copper Creek restaurant for a bottle of wine. We soaked more in the wonderful hot tun, enjoying the wine and the peacefulness of the woods around us!

The next morning we woke to sunshine streaming through the trees. Excited to possibly see the mountain we packed up and left the cabin, with the promise to ourselves that we would come back and enjoy this spot again in the future!

 We headed into Nisqually entrance, at one bridge we could fully see the mountain, if only for a moment! There were clouds in the area, moving lazily through the valleys, and we were trying to get to the mountain before those clouds cloaked it in misty gauze. As we went higher the sky darkened little by little. On the last section into Paradise, the sky cleared for one glorious pristine, mind-blowing moment - a hole in the clouds above us showcased the peak of Rainer, framed on all sides by cloud, a floating mountain. Then it was gone. We parked at the lot there and waited to see if the clouds would decide to move on - after seeing them thicken, we decided to travel on. The temps had dropped quite a bit since the previous day, hovering right around freezing, the mist had frozen on to the limbs of the evergreen trees, giving a white frostiness to the forest.

We  drove through the park to exit the other side and stop at Grove of the Patriarchs - unfortunately the bridge over the river to the actual grove was out so we were only able to do the lovely approach trail.


We drove back to the airport and dropped off the car before getting an Uber to the Edgewater in downtown Seattle. There we met up with family and headed over to Pike's Market to be crushed in by mobs of tourists to see some fish getting tossed around, before finally settling down at a Mexican joint in an alley close by. That evening we met up with family friends deeper in town at a brew pub to catch up with everyone.

The following morning, cruise day was upon us. Our ship, the Norwegian Jewel, was departing from the dock right next to the Edgewater; easy commute! We dropped our rolling bags, boarded and got situated, finding a group of family to sit with. There were 70 people in our group, most of which we didn't know! But as the week went on, we got to know everyone, at least by sight, if not more detailed.

The ship departed with little fan fare, barely a feeling of movement at all. Seattle grew distant quickly and the shoreline became sparsely peppered with buildings. The wilds creep in quickly.

The first day was a day at sea, the boat rocked a bit, and quite a few people became sea sick. I've never had that problem, fortunately. This day passed in a blur, at sea days are the dead zones in a story, we were very ready to get off the boat after this day!


We woke to pulling into port. We had made no excursion plans in this town, but I'd researched a trail just outside of town that sounded like it would be perfect. We and 2 others grabbed a taxi to the trailhead of Deer Mountain. The sunny weather and temperature was perfect! As we climbed and gained the elevation we were surrounded by enormous trees covered in moss, large ferns, and dense under-growth. The forest was beautiful, dappled in sun light. Ravens called curious 'water-droplet' calls among other hauntingly beautiful calls echoing through the under story.

The views at the overlooks were well worth the elevation gain, We saw sea planes and bald eagles flying below our position. We only saw less than a dozen people. After the amount of humanity on the cruise ship and in town, it was very nice to be away from the crowds surrounded by nature.

Back in town we split ways from our friends and met up with Songbirds' parents for some lunch and a stroll around town for some light shopping. This town wouldn't exist as it is without the tourists, it would be a salmon fishery and not much else, however, with the amount of cruisers that come here, everything is affected. Of course there were tourist "traps" like the lumberjack show and Dolly's house of prostitution, but both looked like a fun way to pass the time, the shopping district around the creek had local artisans as well as the typical t-shirt shop found where ever cruises stop. Soon enough it was time to get back on the boat with our prizes (a couple unique local artisanal pieces).


The following morning we found ourselves mooring at the shores of  a State Capital. A capital that cannot be driven to! This day we did have an excursion waiting, so we had no time to explore the town. We got off the boat and onto a bus that delivered us a mile away to a dock and our float planes flotilla!

We did the Taku Lodge excursion, in which we flew over 5 glaciers on our way up river to a lodge where we would have a fresh salmon bake with the opportunity to hike around the property. The flight up was amazing! Songbird scored the copilot seat, so she got the royal view! Alaska must be seen from the air! The glaciers are so large and winding away into the distance, even at 3000 feet.

Once landed at the lodge we were greeted by mosquitoes and bears. The "real" Alaska! As the salmon is being baked, there are a couple resident black bears that roam the grounds waiting for a chance to get the drippings. While they are wild animals, they are also well fed and very used to people, it's part of the package. There's a few employee's waiting around with long sticks to stop the bears and they place themselves between the guests and the bears. After the salmon is taken off the bears disappear, probably to wait on the next tour group. The food was delicious! And after the meal we walked around the property, viewing some moss covered trees, a glacier across the way, and some cliffs in the back of the location.

After a few hours we boarded our float planes and had the wonderful re-experience of flying back to Juneau over the glaciers, rivers, and mountains once again. We landed with just enough time to walk back to the cruise ship and meet up with some friends coming from their canoeing adventure.

That evening the ship cruised slowly past many glaciers, at one point going up a dead end and spinning so everyone could get a magnificent view. I am very glad we had a balcony!

The sheer size of everything, and the amount of miles we went still surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, was hard to grasp.


The following day Songbird, Anthony, Liz, Katie, Graham, and myself had a long hiking excursion up to Laughton Glacier. We met our guide, Ruth, right off the ship and we walked a mile through town to get to a train station. We rode on the train with our other guides Wyatt and ***(space cadet). The train stops, apparently in the middle of nowhere, at Laughton Glacier trailhead. From there we began a 4 mile hike to the glacier. The trail beagn nice and soft, with little grade and many beautiful features to distract - little streams winding away, meadows of flowers, mossy and fern filled glades. We stayed up front with Wyatt chatting with him and Amy (another hiker). Until what seemed like no time at all, we arrived at a places where the trail had an overlook up the glacial valley and where the nature of the trail changed drastically.

Rather than soft treadway, the path became rocky and steep, leaving the river valley and following a receding glacier. Every step up the land changed, the plants smaller, the dirt thinner; we reached an area where there were no plants at all yet growing. Ahead and up still a dirty mound of ice and rock, glacial moraine, waited. We picked our way up and then out onto the ice. We donned our micro-spikes and kept going another half mile. Here we took a break and ate lunch, drinking glacial water straight from the stream. The immensity and the breathtaking vistas all around us was a great treat to have with lunch! To move up almost through time, from the pine forest, to the alders, to the grasses and lichen, to the bare rock and on to the ice! Amazing!

The wall of mountain and ice at the head of the valley really became apparent when a helicopter flew over us and close to the mountain. It appeared to be a speck against the enormity of the mountain!

We said our good byes to the mountain and the glacier and hiked down, though I  could've stayed longer and explored more. On the way back we noticed a bear and been using the trail as a bathroom.. a lot! We didn't see the ursa though. We made it back to the train stop, but the train was a bit late, and we were getting back into Skagway just in time to make it back on the ship. We were supposed to walk the mile back to the ship, but they provided a bus for us since we were cutting it extremely close - which worked out, because it started pouring down rain just then!

Back on the Boat
The following day was another day at sea, this is the day we celebrated Daniels birthday, roasted him, ate drank and were very merry! Also we dressed up and danced the night away.

Victoria BC

We had no plans for this stop, none of the excursions were very adventurous, so we walked off the boat and into downtown to see what we could see. Victoria is a nice town, cute small clean inner harbor, framed with a few artists selling their wares. Totem poles seemed to be in quite a few locations, including Chinatown, which was more like China-block sans Chinese, add totem poles, Scottish fiddlers, and Thai food - odd that. We ended our foray at a upscale bar called Canoe, which had good gravy fries and beer. Songbirds' dad didn't want to walk back across the city so he found a water taxi that docked right next to the restaurant, so we got a boat ride most of the way back to the cruise ship. All in all fun and relaxing day hanging out with loved ones!

Seattle Part Two

Back on the boat for one more evening. One more night of open bar, too much food, and a nice watery view from our balcony. We docked in Seattle and took our time to leave the ship, letting the lines dry up. We walked a block down from the terminal and got an Uber to our hotel by the airport to drop off our bags.
We got an Uber back in town to go to REI, Feathered Friends, and walk back down to see some family friends by Pike's Market. We headed back to the hotel later in the afternoon and concluded our tip the next morning with a flight home.

I liked the trip! The excursions were definitely exactly what I wanted to be doing, possibly a bit more intense - however I understand that they must be at a level most cruisers can enjoy. I would've liked if the time in ports were longer, Juneau and Skagway seemed like they would be fun towns to explore but the excursions were appropriately long and took all the time in port. I liked the cruising portion, in that we always had a view of mountains from our room, and that we woke up and were somewhere different with no effort. I loved Rainer and would like to go just there for a long time; in fact Songbird said she would hike the Wonderland Trail with me in its entirety as long as we can stay at the Muir Cabin before and after - easy!

Our good friend Katie's take on the Alaskan Adventure and a great blog to follow:

Part 1
Part 2