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October 10, 2006 > Adventure to Alaska, Asia and beyond

Adventure to Alaska, Asia and beyond

by Arnie Becker

We have now cleared the security hassle at SFO and are awaiting our flight to Vancouver for the real start of our adventure. After a two-hour delay, we finally boarded the plane and departed for Vancouver. While waiting, we called Princess Cruises to let them know that 16 passengers, all bound for the Sapphire Princess were concerned about making the deadline for the ship's departure. Thanks to Vancouver airport and Canadian customs officials we were hustled through formalities upon arrival and headed for the ship with baggage in tow.

First things first - dinner, unpack, and get settled in our balcony cabin. The next day was at sea and the following day we made our first landfall in Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska. We pre-booked a tour to the Rain Forest Sanctuary Area and upon disembarkation from the ship, boarded our bus and rode to the beginning of the walking tour. On the way, we learned that there are only 32 miles of highway, not counting residential streets, in the greater Ketchikan area. The population is about 17,000 hearty souls. Of course, the tourist season population is significantly larger from May to October. For the permanent population fishing, tourism, logging and conservation are the principal occupations.

The Alaskan Rain Forest Sanctuary is a private reserve located in rustic Herring Cove. This area is home to bald eagles, black bear, seals, a variety of birds and of course fish. Salmon, salmon and more salmon - all coming up the rivers and streams to spawn and die. This area also has a major fish hatchery from which thousands of fingerlings are released each year in an effort to rebuild the salmon population. Our guide was a young man who was born and has lived all of his life in Ketchikan and until this summer was a commercial fisherman.

We saw all manner of vegetation and as was pointed out to us, some of it is extremely harmful if you grab it with bare hands. Almost all of is beautiful. This is a prime black bear county and on one trip, not ours, our guide saw 18 bears. These bears range in weight from 250 to 500 pounds and generally do not attack humans unless cornered or frightened. That said, it was interesting to note that our guide was carrying a rather large road flare, a huge can of bear spray and other implements to scare off a bear if he challenged our group. We saw one bear high up in a tree that was almost too far to photograph.

In this same sanctuary is the old Herring Bay Lumber Company Sawmill; a mill that started production in the early 1900s and shut down in the early 1960s. Our last stop on the tour was to see Alaska native master carver Wayne Hewson. A Tsimpshian from Metlakatla, a native community on Annette Island 17 miles from Ketchikan, Hewson is a master at carving totems and an accomplished creator of wooden spoons, bowls, paddles, and other items. His work is shown in collections throughout the United States.

Back to the ship for an early sailing to Juneau, our next port of call. Here we had two tours booked. The first was a sea and land photo safari with a professional photographer. We started out early in the morning and headed for the harbor where we joined our rigid hull inflatable boat. Put into service this year, the boat holds 20 people and is beautifully equipped for photographers with its flip-up windows and a large bow area for viewing and taking photos.

Our guide, Cam, was very careful to tell us that this was not a whale-watching trip and that there could be no guarantees about seeing whales or seals. Of course as soon as we were in open water we saw our first humpback whale blowing. A short while later we saw three whales together all blowing and giving us the tail. We were out for two hours and saw seven whales, most about 100 yards from our boat. One aspect that was very interesting was that the captain of the boat was able to identify individual whales by their markings and was able to tell us how many seasons it had been coming to this area and which pod it was part of.

At the end of the excursion, we headed for a small island covered with sea lions. There were several challenges between two or more males for dominance. Then back to the ship for a quick lunch and off on another tour. This time it was a helicopter tour of the glaciers around Juneau. There were 27 of us split between five helicopters. Total flight time was a 35 minutes with 15 minutes standing and walking on the glacier. The scenery was magnificent. The glaciers themselves varied from dirty white, to pure white, to the blue green of new ice. We could see where one glacier is still growing and others are receding at a rapid rate. In fact a rate that has changed from 40 feet a year to more than 600 feet a year in the last five years. Can this be called global warming? We landed on one of the glaciers and got out after first being warned that if we fell into a crevice there was little that they could do to rescue us.

This was the first time I have ever stood and walked on a glacier and it was a little nerve wracking. You slid as you walked and you could hear the ice crunch under foot. There were spots with fairly fast flowing streams of melting ice and large holes that would swallow up a human being with one misstep. We were also warned not to step too close to the edge as it could break off and take us with it. But it was a beautiful sight not to be missed. Even if you only saw it once in your life, it was worth every dime. It was breathtaking.

This is day three of our cruise and so far each day has been filled with excitement, excellent food, meeting of new people at every turn, and sightseeing that should not be missed if you are coming up this way, either by ship or by air. Tonight we sail for Skagway and the home of the White Pass and Yukon Route railway.

Arnie will continue reporting from this exciting 22 day cruise that will take in more of Alaska, Siberia, Japan, and China.

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