For some time we have wanted to revisit Canada and see something of Alaska. The opportunity came from August 18th to September 6th. The trip was like having two holidays, firstly aboard the “Star Princess” travelling the inside passage, and then two days in each of three Wilderness Lodges expertly run by Princess Cruises.
After a 15 hour flight from Sydney to Vancouver, we were picked up and transferred to the Star Princess for the first leg of our seven day journey.
The first two days were at sea, which gave us time to get over jet lag, slip into cruise mode and be pampered for the next seven days with first class accommodation and meals.
Our first stop was at Ketchikan, a small town but full of interest. I am a keen wildlife photographer and had pre booked a trip to the lighthouse, totem poles and Bald Eagles, the latter being my priority. We boarded a small ferry, and within 200 m the deckhand said, “Look right and see the Bald Eagle in the trees”. This continued for most of the journey, with the highlight of the bird on an island only metres away.
The island was once manned, but now the hazard lights run automatically; there was an abundance of varied seabirds and to my delight, a whale sounded as we turned for home. For me, a most memorable experience.
Our next stop was Junea, the capital of Alaska, some 288 miles north. Surrounding us were snow-capped mountains, fast running rivers and a temp of 12°C.
We booked a trip to the Mendinall Glacier, with beautiful surroundings and the glacier as a backdrop.
The lake was full of Red Salmon, and we were lucky to get a glimpse of a Black female bear and her two cubs.
Later we boarded a cable car for the
1,800 ft trip up the mountain, giving wonderful views of Junea and the surrounds. There was an abundance of beautiful flowers and toadstools, with some totem poles towering over them.
Overnight we sailed on, arriving early morning in Skagway, to be transferred to the White Pass Yukon Route train made up of vintage carriages. The train ride is recognised as one of the best 10 train trips in the world. For the next three hours we travelled up to the summit, some 2,885 ft elevation, well above the tree line, with a different environment surrounded by rolling Alpine meadows. We travelled over sky high trestles, cascading waterfalls and through two tunnels. A backdrop of mist covered mountains added to the beauty.
The next morning saw us in Glacier Bay, picking up some Rangers, who spent the day with us giving a running commentary and answering questions on our trip along the icy waters of the magical John Hopkins and Magerie Glaciers.
Three hours later, the Star Princess turned back towards the North Indian Passage then across the Gulf of Alaska towards College Fjord.
Next day, Friday 24th, we made for Prince William Sound, then into Port Wells and on to the majestic College Fjord, where we spent several hours admiring the six tidewater Glaciers along with the whales, otters and birds.
Climate change has caused a great deal of concern, because the glaciers are receding about 26 ft each year.
Saturday 25th August saw us up by 5am, saying farewell to the Star Princess and on to the train by 7am.
The train taking us to the first Lodge in Mt Kinley National Park was well equipped, with picture windows extending into the roof. The scenery was magnificent, and we saw bears, White Whales, and mountain goats. We were dropped off and put on a bus for the one hour trip to our Wilderness Lodge in Denali National Park.
When we arrived in the park, Mount Denali was visible in all its glory; it had not been seen for three weeks because of the rain. The next day it was gone again, but at least we saw it.
Everything was well organised; our bags were in our spacious rooms, and we had a choice of two restaurants to dine in.
Rain stopped play on Sunday. We discovered the lodge, which was a lot bigger than we thought, and there was a bus going around all day to the other lodges in the park and back to the main building.
We took advantage of the talks by the Rangers. I always thought that the Grizzly Bear was king, only to find that the moose was the most dangerous animal in the wilderness and was seen chasing bears up trees. The moose kills more people than any other animal, standing 6 ft tall and weighing up to 1,600 lb with antlers over 40 lb in weight.
Monday 27th, and we were on the bus to the second lodge in Denali National Park. The afternoon saw us on our way to see the Husky dogs.
I learned that there is no such breed recognised as Husky, as the dogs are bred from different breeds – the criteria of which is that they have big paws, long legs and stamina.
The Rangers put on a mock sled run with seven of the dogs; they love to work, so all the dogs were trying for the position and almost saying, “Pick me”.
For me, Tuesday was the highlight of the trip. We boarded the bus for an eight hour wilderness tour well into the Denali National Park. It was not long before the tarred road gave way to rough gravel.
Our driver, Nancy, was a wealth of information and stopped many times to view the wildlife. I counted 14 species of animals and birds, including moose, Grizzly Bear, a mother bear and her two cubs crossing the road in front of us, caribou, mountain goats, their national bird, the Ptarmigan, and Golden Eagles.
The park shuts down on September 15th until May, when the season starts again. Most roads are impassable, as the snow is usually between 7 and 13 ft deep. The cities are different, with internal roads cleared, but even a few miles outside the roads become impassable. I was told that there were three modes of transport: the Huskies and sled – the most popular and a lot of people have 14 dogs, seven to a sled; snow shoes; and ski doo, if the snow is not too soft. Children do not have to go to school when the temp falls between minus 40 and 60ºF.
Those in remote places rely on being legally able to kill two moose for meat in the year; miss out, and you could starve – a very harsh lifestyle.
Our last lodge was in Fairbanks, a large town with all amenities and big shopping malls, where people come to stock up for winter.
The museum there was most impressive, showing lifestyles through the ages.
Our last night was a get together with a great meal and company. After a great deal of Red Salmon, Alaskan King Crab and lobsters during our trip, I opted for the 16 oz moose steak, which was delicious.
Our last leg of the journey was flying from Fairbanks to Seattle and on to Vancouver for four days.
We were lining up for coffee in the airport at Fairbanks – only one person on duty, so it was slow going. The man ahead of me said, “We will miss the plane if were not careful”. A female voice from behind said, “No, you won’t. I have the keys to the plane, and we are not going anywhere until I have had my coffee”.
That was our pilot, who was waiting for us standing in the cockpit door with a smile when we got on the plane.