Sunday July 24, 2016

Not sure where to start. So much of what’s happened these past few days is so hard to describe …


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, on Thursday, the Zaandam 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!


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, glacial rivers, before landing on the mighty Meade Glacier for a guided walking tour.

The weather wasn’t as kind as it might’ve been, but the heli-ride (a first for lots in our group) was thrilling. However, what really overwhelmed us was the scale of this landscape. Sorry, folks, but this one highlight you’ll never appreciate secondhand – you’ve gotta see it for yourself. I mean, against this huge black-and-gray-and-white ‘river-of-ice’, our helicopters looked like insects. And we humans felt like SPECKS!

But wait – there’s even more!


Having briefly witnessed the TOP end of Alaska’s glaciers (there are more than 200,000 of ‘em up in those mountains) we spent Friday getting up-close-and-personal with the BOTTOM end of a few biggies … as our ship (arriving in the foggy 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 250 years ago, this vast region (including the Bay itself) was completely buried, up to 4000 feet thick, under the stuff.
  2. The monster ice-slides we Kiwis saw 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 from the ship 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, some of us spent hours on deck and on our balconies 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.

STILL TO COME: We say goodbye to the Zaandam, and head ashore in Seward – gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park and home to more awesome mountains, glaciers, and creatures great and small …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Four more world-famous quacky yellow ducks have been given out …

  • Kathy won the ‘Tweedle-dee-Dee, Tweedle-dee-Dumb’ Award – for commenting on a busy street corner in Victoria (Vancouver) how nice it was to hear birds again. “I’ve hardly heard or seen any birds since we arrived. ” Only problem was, what Kathy was hearing wasn’t a bird – it was the beeper on the pedestrian-crossing.
  • Bert received our ‘Very Very Early Bird’ Award – for beating the sparrows up the other morning. Frankie (his cabin-companion) came in at midnight after enjoying some shipboard fun in the Piano Bar. Bert woke up and, next thing Frankie knew, Bert was in the shower and getting dressed for the day ahead. On hearing it was only 1am, Bert complained, “I wish you’d told me sooner …”
  • George took home our ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ Award – except it wasn’t Seattle, it was on the ship. And, far from being sleepless, George managed to sleep through our afternoon Midlife Madness Cocktail Party on board the ship, and would’ve missed the entire event if someone hadn’t gone and woken the poor boy up.
  • Heather walked away with our ‘Two Early for Condiments’ Award. Looking very sleepy-eyed at breakfast this morning, she was observed scavenging through the variety of different sugar-sachets on the little container on their table, asking “What colour is the salt and pepper?” It took someone else to point out that the salt and pepper were in the big glass salt-and-pepper-shakers sitting right in front of Heather.
  • Rob (McBride) earned himself our Breaking & Entering’ Award – for making a serious attempt to get into the wrong hotel room the other night, sliding his key-card up and down, trying the handle several times, and all-but kicking the door down … much to the consternation/excitement of the two ladies from our group whose room it was.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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