Our Alaska adventure was booked through Van Guard Tours on the Holland America Line, and included 7 days on a ship going through the Inside Passage, with stops at Ketchikan; Haines; Skagway; Juneau; and Sitka, and 7 days on land, visiting Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.; Anchorage; Denali; and Fairbanks. The weather was generally good for September, with a little rain and overcast skies.
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Vancouver is a beautiful, modern, and expensive city that's sure to grow and Victoria seemed frozen in time to some previous era. Although it is the British Columbia provincial capital, Victoria is very remote on Vancouver Island, requiring more than an hour to get there by ferry. We spent a half day at the world-famous Butchart Gardens, which have unmatched color and aroma. It's amazing how so many different flowers can be maintained in bloom at all times.
The first stop along the Inside Passage was Ketchikan, and the highlight here was a visit to Totem Bright State Park. The park contained several beautifully carved totem poles and an exact replica of a ceremonial clan house. We walked through part of one of the world's largest temperate rain forest, which extends through a large part of southeast Alaska. the Japanese Current provides much rain in the summer and much snow in the winter. We also drove past the location of the proposed "bridge to nowhere", which was priced at $230 million and was to connect Ketchikan to an island where the airport is located. A short ferry trip (less than 15 minutes) seems to be adequate.
We docked next at Haines, which wasn't much by itself, but we were able to take a Ferry to the famous gold-rush town of Skagway -the gateway to the Klondike gold fields. There were excursions to some of the famous arduous passes the miners had to negotiate, but we opted instead to take in a museum and learn about some of the fascinating history of the area.
The next stop for our ship was Juneau, the capital of Alaska. We toured the city and saw the governor's mansion (Sarah Palin's residence) and the main street, full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars -including the famous Red Dog Saloon. It was interesting to see an "Obama for President" sign in a window across the street from the mansion. Our bus trip also took us to the Mendenhall Glacier (200 feet tall and 2,000 feet long), the first of three glaciers we saw close up.
It was a rainy day when our ship sailed on to Sitka, the Russian capital of their Alaska colony. We made a short tour of the city, including the historic St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Because of the rain, we didn't spend much time in Sitka. We returned to the ship where Leon found some ping pong competition - one guy from China and another from Ontario, who were pretty good, but not good enough.
The last leg on our cruise was a long one - from Sitka to Seward. Along the way we cruised by the Hubbard Glacier, with its clearly blue tint. As we approached the glacier, we passed through many small icebergs in a gray sea from the silt carried down by the glacier. At Seward, we boarded a smaller ship which allowed us to get up close (within 300 yards) to the Portage Glacier. At Seward, we also said good by to several delightful people we met on the ship.
We traveled from Seward to Anchorage by bus. After an over-night stay in Anchorage, we boarded a sight-seeing train that took us through the Denali State Park. The train had two levels; the lower level was a dining area and the upper level was an excellent seating and viewing area. The fall color, consisting of mostly yellow and some orange birch trees, was brilliant (just a few days past its peak). After eight hours on the train, we reached the lodge where we spent the night. The next day, we took a bus tour through the Denali National Park and Preserve. Both on the train and on the bus we saw some wild life, usually at a distance or quick glimpses. Moose, grizzly bear, and Dall sheep were among the wildlife we saw. In many of the streams we passed throughout the trip we saw salmon returning to spawn. It was late in their remarkable journey and most were dying. We saw a piece of Mt. McKinley poking through a cloudy shroud.
We continued our scenic train ride another four hours to Fairbanks, where we spent a couple of days at some interesting places. We visited the now inactive gold dredge operation, where tons of earth were scooped in buckets by a huge machine to yield a few ounces of gold. We were allowed to pan some of the tailings, where Carlene struck it rich - our retirement is secure! We took a riverboat past famous Susan Butcher's sled dog ranch to a replica of an Athabascan native village. We also stopped to get a close look at the Alaska Pipeline - it's hard to believe that it's 30 years old and long past its peak delivery capability.
Our final adventure was a bus tour north from Fairbanks across the Yukon River to the Artic Circle. Along the way we saw some wildlife fairly close up, including a large bull moose standing in the road in front of us, a lynx running by the road, a snowshoe hare turning from summer brown to winter white, and a flock of ptarmigan birds, also turning from brown to white. We weren't quick enough to get pictures, except for the ptarmigan. It is customary to do a little song and dance when crossing the Artic Circle - we did our best.