Brandon Sun (Newspaper) - July 6, 2002, Brandon, Manitoba
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JUNEAU, Alaska — You’ve booked an Alaskan cruise early enough to secure a stateroom with a private balcony. You’ve seen the cruise line advertisement that boasts, “One picture tells the story.”
One problem with the ad: the photographic image of a whale’s fluke so close to the balcony is misleading, if not an outright fabrication.
Whales and other marine wildlife of Alaska’s Inside Passage can be viewed from the huge ships, but the distances are great — think of spotting such an animal a half kilometre away from the 10th floor of an office building. Therefore, shore tours are essential for close observation of nature that makes Alaska vacations special.
Cruise lines offer advance tour reservations, but many tours also can be purchased upon arrival at the ports of call. Last season, Princess Cruises listed almost IOO options, ranging from deep sea fishing for halibut ($450 per person) to the Town and Totem tour of Ketchikan (about $33). Helicopter rides ($300-plus per person) are popular for dramatic views of glaciers and pristine rivers. (All figures in U.S. dollars.)
Other prices for Princess Adventures Ashore: Wildlife Sightseeing Quest, Juneau, $105, with partial refund if no whales are sighted; Heritage Town and Country Tour, Ketchikan, $59, including nature walk and visit to Totem Bight; White Pass Scenic Railroad, Skagway, $89, travelling by rail along the historic White Pass & Yukon Route.
The experiences can be jaw-dropping, like a humpback whale that surfaces no more than 30 metres from the deck of a tour boat near Juneau.
“We have a 100-yard limit, but the whales don’t,” notes the captain.
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Ketchikan Creek. At the mouth of the creek is Dolly’s, a restored bordello on Creek Street. The legacy of Ketchikan’s rowdy past, today’s Creek Street is populated by galleries and curio shops.
The first “cruise ship” to Alaska was a steamer from Seattle in 1884. So says a display in the quaint and entertaining Corrington Museum in the rear of a gallery in Skagway by the same name. Women were instructed in a tour brochure to bring shoes with spikes for walking on glaciers and to wear short skirts that would not snag in the shin’s railing The cruise price in 1884: $98.
If time for excursions in Skagway is brief, you must choose between the town’s gold rush history — sometimes colourful, sometimes violent, sometimes heroic — and the environmental bounty of the Chilkoot and Chilkat basins. A six-hour automobile trip from Skagway, the basins are less than an hour away by the Fairweather Express II, a fast ferry across the so-called Lynn Canal to Haines, a former army post. From Haines, Alaska Nature Tours provides “a well-equipped expedition bus” — it’s a converted school bus — and a pair of informative guides for a trip to see the eagles.
The Chilkoot River’s name means “basket of large fish.” It flows downhill from a glassy lake to the tidal estuary, bisecting a dense forest. The Chilkoot is a popular salmon run, which the guides drolly report is “very popular with the salmon’s predators — the bears and eagles.”
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At top, passengers leave a cruise ship for shore excursions in Skagway, Alaska, a port of call on Alaska’s Inside Passage last July. Above, a tour group receives instructions before taking kayaks around Chilkoot Lake near Haines, Alaska. Such excursions can be arranged for passengers of cruise ships that dock in Skagway.
ASSOCIATED PRESSShore tours on Alaska’s Inside Passage allow some dazzling closer perspective
A totem pole stands outside the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska, a stop on a tour of the city in southeast Alaska. On display inside the centre are totems and totem fragments up to 160 years old.
By John O. Lumpkin
JUNEAU, Alaska — Minutes after leaving the dock in Auke Bay, the Cape Aialik’s engines slowed. The captain manoeuvred the 21-metre catamaran closer to the rock-strewn shore.
A bald eagle apparently was swimming — “doing the breast stroke,” the captain quipped over the ship’s intercom.
So it was. The giant bird was engaged in a desperate match for survival, perhaps IOO metres from the tourists on the Aialik who were witnesses. Its problem was ironic; it clawed a fish for lunch, but the fish dove. The eagle’s hyperextended legs prevented its talons from releasing the prey.
The eagle gained the advantage with the furious beating of its wings and remained above the water’s surface. Once on land, its talons relaxed and shed the fish. The battle now reversed, the eagle pecked away at what appeared to be a hefty salmon. It then flew the leftovers to the top of a nearby spruce to feed another member of its family.
The Aialik’s passengers were told they had just witnessed a special event, though excursion guides also say drowning is a frequent cause of death among bald eagles in Alaska. The encounter set the tone that brisk day in July for four hours of wildlife observation in the cold waters near Juneau. The adventure concluded with a spectacular show by a humpback whale as big as a freight car.
Whether by catamaran, float plane, helicopter, four-wheel drive or canoe, thousands of cruise passengers a week patronize nature and history tours at southeast Alaska’s ports of call in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka.
The shore excursions can add $1,000 US or more per couple to the seven-day cruise bill, but don’t assume Alaska’s version of Wild Kingdom will unfold from the balconies of a cruise ship that is as tall as a 10-storey building.
That means you have to get off the boat for a closer look, forgoing the unlimited buffets, putting tournaments and casinos while the ship is docked. If you ignored the cruise lines’
mailings about shore tours, there are independent vendors available when the ship arrives at one of the scheduled stops.
In Ketchikan, meet Shawnmarie, a school teacher when she is not driving a busload of visitors to Totem Bight State Park. There, Sitka spruce and cedar grow on stumps of fallen trees because their roots cannot penetrate the rock below the thin layer of topsoil. A walk through an Alaska rainforest ends in a meadow by the Tongass Narrows where a collection of totems and the replica of a native clanhouse stand.
Shawnmarie chatters about life in southeast Alaska — the boat that brings the weekly shipment of toilet paper and other essentials, the houses that are built on floats so their occupants pay no real estate taxes, the halibut burgers that can be substituted for a McDonald’s quarter pounder.
The city of Ketchikan grew over water as well as beside it. The sliver of land beneath Deer Mountain where Ketchikan was established was soon exhausted, so developers extended the wharfs to accommodate more commerce. Some streets on the town map are, in reality, wooden stairs up the adjacent slopes. Because it may rain more than 380 centimetres a year, the baseball field is gravel.
The rain also produces foxglove, rhododendron, daisies and blackberry bushes that flourish in the parks and along the roadside and nature trails. If a tour bus is too confining, a five-kilometre trail starts at the Totem Heritage Center near downtown. Weissmann Travel Reports of Austin, Tex., cautions that it “is for moderately experienced hikers — in other words, it’s steep, so wear your hiking boots ...”
The Totem Heritage Center houses 33 totems or totem fragments, some more than 150 years old. The quiet, musty and dark enclosure is an ancient library of sorts, because totems told stories for native people with no written language. They were not objects of pagan worship, as missionaries originally thought.
Before the cruise ship disembarks, make time for a tasty lunch of chowder and biscuit ($3.50 US) at the New York Hotel Cafe next to“4-Bears Casino”
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