Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wells Family Trip to Alaska, August 15-22

August 15th, Escaping Reality and Landing in Seattle

A trip to Alaska was the only trip left that my father had promised us we would take. So, in celebration of Thomas’ return from his mission and the fact we were finally “all together”, the seven of us took a seven-day cruise into Alaska’s Inside Passage. The day began early. The first shift (aka Joseph, me, and my dad) left for the airport at 4:30 am. My father left Joseph and me standing watch over the luggage while the next shift was shuttled to the airport. Our flight left at 6:45. We made perfect time and were able to board as soon as we arrived at our gate. We landed in Seattle and took a shuttle to our ship, the Celebrity Infinity. The ship was 965 ft long, accommodated approximately 2,000 guest and 1,000 crewmembers.

Thanks to the time change and an early flight, we were able to wander to Pike’s Market and have lunch. We watched as customers ordered numerous fish and the employee at Pike Place Fish Market picked them up from the Fish Market’s ice-covered fish table and hurled them over the counter, where another employee would catch the fish and prep them for sale. We all ate at different little booths at the market. The most interesting thing that anyone ate was Richard’s Texas Maple donut. He spent $5 for a donut roughly the size of his head and he was kind enough to share with the whole family.

Other notable things we saw were the gorgeous array of flower bouquets. We saw the original Starbucks Coffee store that was started in 1976 and is still in operation. The sign outside the Starbucks is unlike its usual logo. It is the original logo of a bare-breasted siren that was modeled after a 15th century Norse woodcut. We saw the Seattle Space Needle standing 520 ft tall against the city skyline. The needle cost $4.5 million to build and opened officially on April 21, 1962 on the first day of the Seattle World Fair, which my dad attended as a child.
The ship embarked at 11:00. Even after having lunch in Seattle, we headed straight for the buffet line when we learned they were serving lunch. We snacked until we could get into our rooms. Some of us napped, while others explored the ship.
The girls entered a drawing at the AquaSpa in hopes of winning a free treatment. We all attended the mandatory lifeboat drill at 3:15. We ate dinner in the formal dinning room and met Jorge, our waiter, and Gurkon, our assistant waiter for the first time. Over the course of the trip, Thomas and Gurkon became very tight and Gurkon would hook us all up with the ship’s “finest cranberry juice.” After dinner, we attended the Welcome Aboard Variety Showtime where they presented a “Taste of Things to Come.” We saw the Celebrity Orchestra, the acapella group Port Authority, and the Celebrity Singers and Dancers. It was presented by our Cruise Director Allan King, a man famous for his “groaning” jokes. We especially enjoyed Port Authority’s catchy rooster song.
August 16th- A Day at Sea
We ate, relaxed, ate, ate, ate some more, and then relaxed. Oh, if we could spend our life cruising. We slipped in the cruising spirit enjoying the leisurely pace, abundant food, and constant service. We swam, read, watched Olympic highlights, played cards and table tennis, explored the ship, and attended a lecture on humpback whales and shows. The whale lecture was the first by naturalist Brent Nixon. Brent Nixon’s lectures were a highlight of the cruise. Over the course of the cruise, he taught us about bears, eagles, whales, sea otters, sea lions, and seals. He did this in a manner that made you think he needed Ritalin, but his presentation style did keep us all entertained and interested. That night, Thomas tried to go party at the club Constellation, but was disappointed to find that he was 40 years younger than most of the people that had taken over the club for disco night.
August 17th- Sitka

We docked in Sitka at 10:00 am and were tendered over to the city. Sitka is a little town with Russian roots. The Russians first arrived in the area in 1741. Their explorations spurred dozens of Russian fur traders, lured by the abundance of otter, seal, and blue fox to venture to this new frontier.
We exited the ship at the base of Castle Hill. It was at Castle Hill that Count Baranov built his house and administrative headquarters overlooking the water. Baranov was a virtual king for 20 years ruling the coast of Alaska and its waters as he directed the enterprises of Russian-American Company. Baranov’s house was filled with the finest furnishing money could buy, imported at great expense from St. Petersburg and England. Castle Hill became known for its lavish balls, and formal affairs-earnign Sitka the title “Paris of the Pacific.” He was fired in 1817, after his jealous bosses started rumors of embezzlement.
We spent most of our time wandering the Sitka National Historical Park. It is Alaska’s oldest federal park, established in 1910 to commemorate the 1804 Battle of Sitka. In 1802, Tlingit warriors attacked the Russians, killing most of them. Seeking revenge, the Russians returned in 1804 with four ships and besieged the Tlingit fort. After much bloodshed, Russians entered the fort to find that it had been abandoned by the Tlingit. Today, the site of the battle is part of the Sitka National Historical Park. From the visitors’ center and museum, trails lead through rainforest past totem poles brought here in 1905 from Prince of Wales Island.
As we ventured through this rainforest, we saw bald eagles and jumping salmon for the first time. We stopped on a bridge crossing the water and were shocked to see the water dense with hundreds of salmon resting.

We did not know what the salmon were doing, until we overheard a tour guide. She explained, that these specific salmon were pink salmon. **In case you were wondering, there are five main types of Pacific Salmon, and they are easy to remember by holding up your open hand: Thumb = Chum, Pointer = Sockeye (like you were to poke/sock someone in the eye), Middle =Chinook/King (longest finger is “king”), Ring = Coho/Silver (rings are made of silver), Pinky = Pink** Salmon spend one to five years (depending on the species) in the open ocean where they will become sexually mature. The adult salmon returns to the stream were they were born to spawn. Prior to spawning, depending on the species, the salmon undergoes changes. In the case of the pink salmon that we saw, they had developed a hump. The salmon will change colors when they enter the freshwater streams. Their condition tends to deteriorate the longer the fish remain in freshwater, and they then deteriorate further after they spawn. These fish in the stream were spawning and then waiting to die. We also learned that salmon jump for numerous reasons. They jump to catch bugs, to escape danger, and to move upstream. Females also jump to loosen their egg sacks.
On our way back into town, we stopped at a fish hatchery and then visited St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. This onion-domed cathedral is the quintessential Sitka landmark. The cornerstone was laid by Bishop Veniaminov in 1844, and construction was completed in 1848. The present church is a replica of the original, which burned down in a fire in 1966. Most of the contents of the church, however, were saved by a human chain in the 30 minutes before the building was destroyed. One man lifted down the huge central chandelier, which later took six men to carry. Although locals managed to rescue the paintings, icons, chandelier, and the partially melted bronze bells, the large library of works in Russian, Tlingit, and Aleut languages was lost. One of the surviving artifacts, the Madonna of Sitka, has been credited with miraculous healings. The reconstruction, in fire-resistant materials, was begun in 1967 and finished in 1972, and new cathedral was consecrated in 1976. After seeing the cathedral, we then hiked up to a gorgeous and peaceful Russian cemetery.
That night we held our own sacrament meeting in my parent’s room before heading up to dinner. After dinner, some people attended the ventriloquist’s show while the rest of us talked and played games.

August 18th, Hubbard Glacier

In the morning, we attended a lecture by Brent Nixon on the bald eagles of the Pacific North West Coast. Afterwards, we all staked out a good viewing area to see the Hubbard Glacier. Stretching over 90 miles from the core of the 12-million acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to the head of Yakutat Bay, the mighty Hubbard Glacier is one of Alaska’s largest and most unpredictable. Where it meets the ocean, the glacier is six-miles wide and 300 feet high. We were amazed by the glacier’s sky blue streaks and learned that the colors of the glacier betrays the origin of its parts: white sections hold many trapped air bubbles; blue streaks are dense and old ice; dark-striped brown streaks carry rubble from the joining of a tributary glacier. We listed as air pockets trapped in the ice and compressed over centuries hissed and popped.

Glaciers form because snowfall in high mountain ranges exceeds snowmelt. Snowflakes first change to granular snow but are soon pressed into a mass of ice by the weight of the accumulating layers above. In time, when the ice becomes heavy enough, the entire mass breaks loose at the bottom and begins a slow-motion avalanche down the mountain - moving from an inch to as much as seven feet in a single day. It is only at the shore that nature’s unstoppable bulldozer meets its match. Softened by the warmer sea air, and eroded by seawater, tremendous chunks of 300-foot high ice cliffs “calve” or crack and crash into the bay below. We were lucky to see the iceberg on a warm day, so several large chunks of the iceberg came crashing down into the bay. The captain also got the ship closer to the glacier than he had ever done before.

In 1986, the Hubbard Glacier made the news when it surged forward and blocked off the Russel Fjord from the sea. Water began to build behind the glacier at a rate of 210 million cubic feet per minute, creating a rising freshwater lake. Eventually, the tremendous flow overwhelmed the massive wall of ice, and the newly formed lake cascaded into the ocean.
We watched the glacier slip from our view as we ate our lunch. On deck, we were treated to an ice carving demonstration and the Polar Bear plunge. None of us participated in the swim, but later Richard and Thomas swam in the glacier water that had been pumped up from the bay. At 2:15, we attended another lecture by the naturalist about Brown and Black Bears. After dinner, we all went to the Celebrity Singers and Dancers “Let’s Rock” program.

August 19th, Juneau Whale Watching and the Mendenhall Glacier

We enjoyed one of Juneau’s very few sunny and clear days. We were off the boat at approximately 7:00. After booking a whale watching trip and a tour of Mendenhall Glacier, we decided to explore the city and headed first to the state capital.

Juneau became the state capital for Alaska January 3, 1959, when Alaska was granted statehood. Federal, state, and local governments employ one out of every two Juneau workers. Many, like Joseph, believe the capital should be moved to Anchorage because of Juneau’s small population (31,000) and inaccessibility (you can only get their by plane, boat, or birth). Our tour guide later told us that every time a motion is made to move the capital, the housing market freezes in Juneau. The state capital was fun to explore because it was decorated with old newspapers announcing Alaska’s statehood and discussing the celebratory bonfire.

There were also various historic photographs. Our favorite displayed a block of gold approximately totaling the cost of Alaska. Next to this block of gold was a much larger stack of gold demonstrating how much gold came out of Alaska after it was purchased.
After touring the capital, we hurried back to port to catch the whale watching tour. My parents had gone on a whale-watching trip before and had not seen anything. It was my dad’s goal to see a humpback whale up close this trip. Upon entering the boat, the guide told us, “Happy people see more whales.” We must have been very happy because we saw at least 7 whales. At one point, we saw a mother, a calf, and her escort. We learned that whales’ lips are not flexible enough to form a suction around the mother’s nipple like other mammals. Instead, a baby whale has to curl it tongue and the mother will squirt milk with a very high-fat content into the baby’s mouth. Joseph used his CapriSun straw to demonstrate that he would make a good baby whale because he can curl his tongue. The baby will gain about 7 pound per hour the first month, a pace which many cruise passengers can relate.
We were also lucky enough to see a group of humpback whales bubble net feeding. We saw lots of spouts, fins, humps, and tails. Sea lions ventured up to our boat to take a closer look. In the background were gorgeous mountains and two large S-shaped glaciers. A bald eagle would periodically fly overhead. Alaska is one of the most picturesque places we have ever explored.

Mendenhall Glacier was our next stop. The two tour groups before us had seen a bear and her cubs feeding on salmon near the glacier. Thomas carried a bagel topped with salmon cream cheese and Maren had a blueberry muffin in her pocket in hopes of increasing their chance of seeing a bear up close, a method not suggested by the park rangers. However, we had no such luck. The only large wildlife we saw at this stop was a large mountain goat on a mountain ridge through the telescope at the visitor center. Mendenhall Glacier was impressive. It is one of the largest glaciers in Alaska that is accessible by road. Over 200 feet high, nearly three miles wide, and 12 miles long. We were surprised to find two large waterfalls near the glacier that also emptied into Mendenhall Lake.

The park rangers retrieved from the lake large chunks of the glacier. We were able to see and hold the interlocking glacier ice cubes. They explained that glacier ice takes longer to melt than your average ice cube because the ice crystals are larger. Crystals melt from the outside and large crystals expose less surface area per unit volume of ice; therefore, ice with larger crystals melts more slowly.

We were back on Infinity by 2:45 pm. After spending a small fortune to see whales, it was ironic that during dinner we saw numerous humpback whales from our cruise ship. Our table was not by a window, so when we heard a gasp and whisperings of whales we rushed to the large window in the back of the dining room. We again saw lots of tails, fins, and humps; however, one whale decided to get a better look at the boat and breeched.
We entertained ourselves that night by watching the comedian Steve Caouette and the “Starring You” Awards. Thomas, Joseph, and I ended the night by going to the midnight buffet. It was basically a celebration of chocolate. Everything looked fabulous and we loaded up our plates. However, nothing tasted good and a few desserts were not even edible. The one bright spot was fresh pineapple dipped in the chocolate fountain!!!

August 20th, Ketchikan

The only time it rained was while we were in Ketchikan. Luckily, it did not rain hard, and we spent the first part of the morning in heated and covered bleachers watching the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.

They divided the audience into two groups upon entering the theater, Canada (aka Dawsons Creek) vs. US (aka Spruce Mill). We were there early so we picked great seats near the front on the US side. Joseph passed the time by reading a Clive Cussler novel. He put it away as the show started. Jackpine Jan served as the announcer and introduced the show. She explained how we were supposed to yell for our team and heckling the opposing team was a requirement. As they brought out the two teams, Joseph began to yell, shout, and whistle. (If anyone has sat next to him at a football game, you know this little man can make a deafening amount of noise.) He even caught Jackpine Jan’s attention, who remarked, “Glad to see you getting involve in the show. I was worried when you brought a book.” Joseph made so much noise during the first chopping competition, that he was rewarded with a large wood chip from the stump when our team won the first event. (To keep track of points, the winning team was always awarded a wood chip that represented one point.) Joseph was quiet for a moment while he wrote, “We’re #1” on his woodchip. When our team won the next point, he went wild and his new little sign caught their attention. The performers joked how impressive it was to find someone who could both read and write because that was not common among lumberjacks. Joseph continued to heckle and cheer as we saw axe throwing, speed climbing, chainsaw races, and log rolling. The chainsaws they used had some “special” improvements. One lumberjack joked that you know you are a redneck when you chainsaw has more power than your car. At the end of the show, Joseph had a hoarse voice; however, he was awarded a Cabela’s “heckler hat” for being the best heckler in the crowd.

After the show, we toured Creek Street-infamous as a former red-light district. The houses on Creek Street follow a curving plank road built over Ketchikan Creek.

Hundreds of salmon do the seemingly impossible task of making their way up the fast, steep, and rocky Ketchikan Creek. In order to increase reproduction rates, at the most treacherous point of the river the city has added a salmon ladder so the lucky few fish that find it have an easier way up the river.

Ketchikan is noted for the world’s largest collections of totem poles. Our last stop was the Totem Heritage Center. It houses a priceless collection of 19th century totem poles and other carvings, retrieved in the 1970s from the Tlingit Indian villages at Tongass Island and Village Island, and from the Haida village of Old Kasaan, on Prince of Wales Island. These totem poles are carved out of red cedar. We learned there are many types of Totem. Three of the main types are crest, story-telling, and mortuary totem poles. I was surprised to learn that often the cremated ashes of the deceased person are placed in a compartment in the back of a mortuary totem pole. Joseph’s favorite type was a shame pole, made entirely for the purpose of ridiculing or embarrassing someone else.

We did some shopping as we made our way back to the boat. Thomas bought a sweatshirt, Richard and Megan bought an Ulu knife, and Joseph secretly bought an Alaska Black Diamond necklace and earrings (aka Hematite stones that are a symbol of friendship and loyalty). He surprised me with them on the last day of the cruise. (Isn’t he just the cutest husband??!!) We returned to the boat around 12:30.
At 4 pm, my mom and I attended the Formal Tea Time minus the tea, which turned out to be an awkward but interesting experience. The waiter was appalled when I asked for hot chocolate instead of tea. Dinner was formal and they served Lobster tail. We tried to entertain ourselves during dinner, much to my dad’s distress, by playing “Truth-or-Dare.” That night, most of the family attended the Celebrity Singers & Dancers “Celebrate the World” performance.

August 21st, Victoria, Canada
We were disappointed to realize we did not arrive in Victoria until 7 pm instead of 7 am like we originally thought. Instead, we spent a lazy morning enjoying the ship. At 5:00 pm, we watched as much as we could of the Farewell Variety Show with Comedian Steve Caouette, Ventriloquist Jerry Land, and Acapella Group Port Authority. We then convinced Jorge and Gurkon to abbreviate our usually two-hour long dinner into a 45-minute experience.
At 7 pm, we arrived in what Joseph calls the “pretend” country of Canada. We left the ship and took a shuttle into town that dropped us near Parliament and The Empress Hotel. We missed the last bus to Butchart Gardens, so we decided to explore town instead.
We first explored the grounds of British Columbia’s Parliament Buildings. It is amazing to think that at the age of 25 Francis Rattenbury designed this impressive building in 1893. The building was officially opened in 1898 and cost $923,000 (originally budgeted only $500,000). Its success garnered Rattenbury many more commissions in Victoria and other parts of the province, including the design of The Empress Hotel. Outside parliament is an Olympic flag hinting at Vancouver’s excitement about hosting the 2010 Olympic games. At night, thousands of lights lit the building.

Next, we explored the Empress Hotel and its gardens. The hotel is approximately 100 years old. Since it has been built, The Empress has played hostess to kings, queens, and movie stars. It is a symbol of elegance and Victoria’s roots. In the past, the hotel did not have a sign above the front entrance since it was so well known. When workers raised the sign above the front entrance, an irate gentleman proclaimed, “Anyone who doesn't know this is The Empress shouldn't be staying here.” The hotel is also well known for its classic Edwardian afternoon tea service. During the summer, the hotel serves tea (along with tea sandwiches, fresh scones, preserves and cream) in its 'Tea Lobby' to more than 800 guests and tourists. According to our shuttle driver, afternoon tea is approximately $60 per person, and reservations are often required one or two weeks in advance.

After the sun had set, we walked the eight blocks to Craigdarroch Castle. It is a beautiful historic Victorian-era mansion, built in the 1890s by wealthy BC coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. Rising 87 stairs up through the 4 ½ stories, there are 39 rooms, most of which are furnished lavishly in the 1890s-1900s period. Craigdarroch Castle has one of North America’s finest collections of Victorian residential stained and leaded glass windows. Due to the late hour, we could not explore the interior of the house. However, we encountered a talkative security guard who was more than happy to talk about the house and added in a few of his “ghost” stories. We returned to the ship around 11:30 pm.

August 22nd, Return to Reality
We left the ship at 7:30 am and headed to the airport. We landed in SLC at 3:30 pm. We all have a few additional pounds that will always remain with us to remind us of the fun we had in Alaska.