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Glaciers, whales and cruise ship shows are Alaska highlights: Susannah Gal

Posted 8/21/19

Well, to continue our phenomenal trip to Alaska that I started to describe in my last column: After the first week of driving between Fairbanks and Seward, we boarded a large cruise ship. We were …

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Glaciers, whales and cruise ship shows are Alaska highlights: Susannah Gal

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Well, to continue our phenomenal trip to Alaska that I started to describe in my last column: After the first week of driving between Fairbanks and Seward, we boarded a large cruise ship. We were among about 2,100 passengers served by about 800 staff on about nine different floors. If you’ve never been on a cruise ship, you’d be amazed what they’ve packed into it.

We spent our first day at sea and explored things on the ship. My husband loved the Lincoln Center stage productions of classical music and America’s Test Kitchen. We got recipes for shrimp tacos, fancy grilled cheese and how to cook salmon. Later in the trip, different officers from the ship talked with people so we found out how the propellers worked, and how they dispose the food waste from the ship into the ocean. They also gave us a tour of the ship’s kitchen at one point, which was fascinating.

There were other shows on board that we enjoyed, like an illusionist who did some amazing card tricks and made people and his dogs appear or disappear on stage.

The second full day, we visited Glacier Bay National Park. In fact, there isn’t a way to visit this park by car as there are no roads. So, the only way to see what we did was on a boat.

The visit started pretty early by the boarding of two Glacier Bay National Park rangers. The guides presented about the park, some of its history and then talked with passengers throughout the day. We took most of the rest of the morning to go up to the glacier at the end of the inlet, called the Margerie Glacier. The ship stayed next to that glacier for a good hour so that passengers could watch the ice at the edge of the water looking for possible calving events, or pieces of the glacier coming off into the water.

I did see a “small” part of the glacier come off at one point. I say “small” because it was about a fifth of the height of the whole glacier that is about 350 feet high.

In the afternoon, we headed back down the bay, with similar glorious views of mountains and other glaciers. Near the end, there was a small island that was filled with seals sunning themselves. I even got one picture that has an orca in the bay behind the seals.

The next day was our first chance to get off the boat and explore Haines, Alaska. This was a small town that had several interesting things to view including a hammer museum (someone had collected a lot of tools and thought to have them for display).

My older daughter and I did a 3-mile hike in the woods with a group and saw bald eagles. Several of the trees were seemingly arched up at their root levels. This was apparently because so many of them started on boulders brought into the area by glaciers. The roots grew up and around the rock and eventually ground the rock away to make a hole at the base of the tree.

On the hike, they gave us a snack of salmon cream cheese balls that tasted really good. After the hike, we visited the local public library. It was popular as it had free Wi-Fi — necessary for some of us who like to keep in touch with things back home.

Day 4 was a visit to Juneau, the capitol of the state. It felt like a bustling city after the little town of Haines. We did our laundry and visited Sealaska, a native American museum that had some really interesting displays. There was a video describing the native hook for catching halibut that was too big for small fish to grab, reducing the need to throw back your catch. We visited a number of shops and saw some amazing woodworking pieces.

Our next day was a visit to Ketchikan, our last stop in Alaska. This town used to be a mining and fish processing place, and had a famed red light district called Creek Street. Several of the small houses along this road right next to the creek had historic placards, listing their famous proprietress and her background.

While walking along the creek, my younger daughter and I saw two seals playing in the water so we snapped a few more pictures. They were so close!

We also did a hike in the temperate rain forest in the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary, about 10 miles outside of town. Here the baby trees grow up on the fallen ones (which provide some nutrients). As the older tree decays, the younger tree’s roots become arched up like those we saw on the hike near Haines.

As we were coming out of the forest into a clearing near a creek, we saw three black bears. We watched as the mama bear protected her cub from an attacking male. Luckily, she prevailed, though it was a sight our guide said they see rarely. We saw several bald eagles near the water there in the trees, plus we got to talk with a totem pole carver as he worked on a piece carved out of red cedar.

The last full day on the boat was spent along the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. We spent a good part of the day watching and seeing whales, dolphins and orcas. We went through a short rainstorm and caught a magnificent rainbow that seemed to be coming out of the water.

We disembarked from the ship in Vancouver and enjoyed a day exploring Stanley Park in that very cosmopolitan city. All in all, it was a wonderful family vacation. We have about 1,000 photos we took on the two-week trip and are still going through them to organize the pictures. We plan to create a photo book to have a hard copy print out of our travels. I totally recommend Alaska as a destination.

Susannah Gal is a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.