ALASKA BLOG 07

Sunday Sept 15, 2013

Not sure where to start, so much has happened since we last reported in! And so much of what happened is so hard to describe, I’m not sure I can do it justice. But here goes (in three parts) …

#1: GOLD-RUSH TRAIN

If you’re ever looking for the tiny frontier town of Skagway, it’s nestled up the end of a beautiful fjord and surrounded by rugged wilderness and looming peaks. And that’s where, yesterday, the Volendam dropped anchor (well, docked, actually).

This ‘Gateway to the Yukon’ was once the busiest place in Alaska. How come? Well, Skagway, in the late 1800s, was the hectic kick-off point for the famous Klondike Gold Rush. Gold-panners streamed up every valley and sloshed through every creek in search of the promised yellow ore. And it’s hard to imagine the frightful conditions those hopeful (desperate) prospectors endured during winter, when this region freezes almost solid.

We, for our part, spent the morning doing it in style – grabbing a taste of what life was like back then by riding the antique White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway up-up-up into the mountains, past silvery-purple rock faces, death-defying canyons, and once-famous locations like Deadhorse Gulch. On the way back down, we even tried our hand at gold-panning (no kidding) – and almost everyone came away with a few shiny, lucky, glowing specks in tiny plastic bags!

But wait … there’s more!

#2: HELI-SPECTACULAR

We then got to ride a helicopter (in fact, a fleet of helicopters) ever so much higher onto Alaska’s spectacular icefield – where we were treated to eye-popping views of jagged peaks, plunging valleys, cascading snowfalls and massive glaciers, before landing on one of these ‘rivers-of-ice’ (the mighty Chilcat Glacier) for a guided walking tour.

I can tell you this unique experience was UTTERLY FANTASTIC AND TOTALLY OVERWHELMING – but those few words can’t begin to describe the vast scale of what we saw. Sorry, folks, but this one highlight you’ll never appreciate secondhand – you’ve gotta see it for yourself. I mean, just look at the pix: against this huge black-and-white backdrop, our helicopters looked like insects. And we humans felt like SPECKS!

Believe me when I say: there were some very elated, can’t-stop-talking-about-it, Kiwis at dinner last night, who were also struggling to put this unforgettably special encounter into words.

But wait – there’s even more!

#3: GLACIER BAY

Having witnessed the TOP end of Alaska’s glaciers (there are more than 200,000 of ‘em up in those mountains, of which we might’ve seen 100) we spent today getting up-close-and-personal with the BOTTOM end of a few biggies … as our ship (arriving in the pink of drawn) cruised ever-so-slowly through the UNESCO World Heritage Reserve known famously as Glacier Bay National Park. This 100km-long fjord, filled with inlets, looming peaks, frozen cliffs and floating icebergs, has more tidewater glaciers than any other place in the world.

Look, why don’t you do what we did? Put on your long undies and warm layers and woolly hats while I give you a few Staggering Glacial Facts:

  1. These shorelines are no strangers to ice. In fact, only 200 years ago, this region was completely buried (up to 4000 feet thick) under the stuff.
  2. The monster rivers of ice we Kiwis saw yesterday and today began life some 4000 years ago, and were formed high in the mountains from compacted snow (just like the glaciers in NZ).
  3. When these giant, now rock-solid iceblocks get heavy enough, they begin inching (centimetering?) downhill, reshaping the landscape and gathering rocky chunks and rubble on the way.
  4. When their front-ends finally reach the ocean (the glaciers we photographed today were a LOT further away than they look, and some were one-to-two miles across) they begin breaking up …
  5. It’s called ‘calving’. It happens when slabs of ice split off from the towering face of a glacier and crash into the sea. And when it happens (especially if it’s a big chunk) it sounds like thunder, shooting water hundreds of feet into the air – and seriously rocking the boat (if you happen to be close enough)!

Anyway, we stood for hours on deck today trying to capture this explosive moment on our cameras – not caring that we got cold and hungry. We waited, and hoped, and held our breath, and even prayed for a calving-to-beat-all-calvings. But the best we saw was a few smaller ice-crunches that went off like a gunshot and hit the water in a cloud of spray.

Not that it mattered. Because this was yet another mind-blowing, gob-stopping Alaskan experience that we will always remember.

TOMORROW: Having reached the northernmost point of our cruise, we’re now heading back the other way to Ketchikan … with time for some totem-poling, axe-throwing and (I kid you not) bear-hunting. We don’t want to miss this – and you won’t want to, either!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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