Sunday, August 18, 1996 – As I write, we are heading away from the crossroads of Tok, Alaska and moving toward Chitina. It’s raining off and on, and our back window was covered in gunk within seconds after cleaning it at the gas station.
I left off with us being in Prince Rupert, Canada, where we were to catch a ferry through Alaska’s Inland passage. We did that the next day, Day 8 [August 12, 1996] of our trip.
Our ferry wasn’t until the afternoon, so we killed time exploring the town. We drove out to the sea plane port but were disappointed to find the planes took off just out of view. Then we drove up and down Prince Rupert’s main shopping street looking for a place to eat. It doesn’t take long to drive, only about two minutes. In fact, the night before, a souped-up car did that all night long. The driver must pass for Prince Rupert’s version of a rebel.
We stumbled upon a place call Cow Bay, down by Prince Rupert’s fish packing plant. At last, a safe port. There was a little cafe there that we ate at, then we went to a coffeehouse across the way for drinks and peanut butter cheesecake. It was nice to just sit in the coffeehouse and watch the people come in and talk. There were three young women who seemed to run the place, and they seemed to know everyone who came in.
It’s easy to get caught up with the things to see when traveling, but it’s often the experiences that you savor more and often don’t expect. I remember walking with Tom along the coast of a remote Irish town, just happy to be out walking to no where in particular. The coffeehouse was the same. It was just nice to sit and experience the energy of the place, the people coming and going, exchanging greetings and news and smiles.
Finally, it was ferry time. We lined up on the road in the appropriate lane and waited. It was about two hours before we moved, and in the meantime, everyone was getting out of their cars and talking to each other. I succumbed to the enthusiasm and got out to chat, but Lorna’s British reserve let her resist such idle friendliness. The guy in front of us demonstrated how his car could switch from kilometres to miles with a push of the button, but I got the last laugh when we compared gas mileage. Apparently, his big car doesn’t get 40 to 50 miles per gallon.
Getting loaded on the ferry was pretty straight forward. We just drove on and parked as directed. I had to take all of our propane and our gas can and store it in the ship’s paint locker. Then we went upstairs and got the keys to our cabin.
The cabin was very small, two bunk beds and a small bathroom. Despite the small size, we were quite happy. We dumped our bags, then had a good explore of the ship. It had a huge observation area at the bow, with aircraft-style seats for sitting and watching wildlife. We settled in to hear a nature talk from the US Forest Service naturalist that rides on each of the state ferries.
Unfortunately, our naturalist had a degree in hospitality, not biology, and she was about the worst person I’ve ever seen in a ranger uniform. We nicknamed her “Clueless” for her inability to answer any question properly.
Tired, we crashed, slightly worried about what would happen if the ship were to sink while we were sleeping. I assured Lorna that we’d probably drown before the cold water froze us to death. That eased her mind, and we fell right to sleep.
Day 9 [August 13, 1996] came, and we were up and into the observation lounge to watch wildlife. We waited and waited, but little came. Whales, otters, eagles and more were supposed to appear. Instead, we saw lots of water.
Around noon, we stopped at the town of Wrangell. The purpose of the state ferry system, the Alaska Marine Highway, is to link all these little coastal towns like Wrangell. Off the ship we went, and at last, we’d arrived in Alaska.
It was a little anticlimactic. After all, Wrangell was a tiny little town on the coast, so it didn’t have the feel of wide open spaces that being in Alaska was supposed to bring. We took a walk along the main street, and that killed about 10 minutes. Then it was back to the ferry, which only stays in port for about an hour while people, cars and supplies get on and off.
The excitement level was high when we returned to the observation lounge. Clueless had returned, and she was describing the Wrangell Narrows, through which we were about to pass. At last, we’d see bears wandering on shore and all sorts of other wildlife, because the coast would be so close to the ship. The Narrows are also very shallow, requiring the ship to go through only on a rising tide.
We did see wildlife, at last, a bald eagle flying from shore to shore. We also got to watch a former Coast Guardsman feel uncomfortable as Clueless pulled him from the group and forced him to describe the different buoys that we were seeing.
At the end of the narrows was Petersburg. I can’t tell much about the town, because we didn’t have time to walk into it. Instead, practically the entire ship got off, walked about 15 minutes away from the port, then turned and walked back to get on before it left.
Back to the observation lounge, at least for Lorna. I’d had enough of watching for mythical wildlife, once they announced “The Arrival” would be playing in the theatre. Away I went to watch the science fiction film, which was quite good.
As I planned, the wildlife appeared once the movie had ended. We saw numerous orca whales spouting and swimming off either side of the ship. Everyone was running around shooting photos and looking through binoculars.
After having dinner, we settled in to watch the evening’s film selection, “Sense and Sensibility.” Then we were docking in Juneau, and it was time to find our campsite for the evening.
It was very dark, because we got in at about 11pm. We drove to a nearby coastal campground, but it was all full. That meant we had to go to a campground near Mendenhall Glacier, a few miles from the ferry port. Along the way, we passed one of the University of Alaska’s campuses–which led to all sorts of fears for Lorna.
You see, Clueless, who lives in Juneau, had described how she’d seen a bear once when walking toward the university. This, combined with the darkness of the campground, convinced Lorna that bears were lurking everywhere, just waiting to pounce. For her, we were finally in the wilds of Alaska, and she wasn’t liking it one bit.
Despite her fears, she held in there and the tent went up. I had our small buck knife open to one side, in case a bear should attack. I imagine it would gain us about a second or two more of life. The pepper spray, which Lorna had clutched as a safety blanket while I had assembled the tent, had been left in the car and wasn’t available for the potential battle with nature.
Day 10 [August 14, 1996] arrived without a bear attack, and Lorna’s mood brightened with the morning’s light. We quickly pulled the tent down in the freezing cold that came off the nearby glacier. Then it was off to the airport.
Low cloud cover meant that our flight to Gustavus was delayed, so we left and got drinks and donuts at a nearby supermarket. About two hours later, we finally headed toward the plane, thanked for being the only people with any patience. Many people had only one day to get out to Glacier Bay and take a tour but we had three days there, so we were much more relaxed.
Our flight with Lorna’s friend Rocko in a small Cessna back in February proved to be good training for our flight. It was a little five-seat plane we jumped into. I sat up front, while Lorna sat next to a young woman from North Carolina.
Up we went, and we had a marvelous view of everything around, including the rising mountains directly in front of us. It didn’t seem like we had much room to clear them, but we slowly rose and were treated to a great look down into valley carved by glacial ice.
After landing, Sandy from the Puffin Lodge came to collect us. As we drove, in a van where the speedometer never moved from 0, she filled us in on the big event in Gustavus — paved roads. They’d finally arrived, after the last ones fell apart just after WWII. We also got a quick tour of Gustavus. We saw the store and cafe, next to each other, and that was it!
Our cabin was small, but nice. After having much needed showers, we took bikes out from the lodge and headed to the cafe. Unfortunately, the cafe was closed. We bought some chips at the store and were told there was another restaurant further down the road.
Sandy had also mentioned this restaurant, and after we found no good pickings in the store to make picnic sandwiches, we decided to give it a go. It turned out to be directly across the road from the lodge. We parked our bikes, took off our shoes as requested, and went in.
Almost immediately, we wanted to leave. Everything LOOKED nice and homey, but it was quickly apparent this was more like being in someone’s extended kitchen rather than a proper cafe. Lynn brought us some menus and a chalkboard with more selections, but then she proceeded to erase about half the items on the board, which she was now out of.
We settled on lasagna, overpriced at $10 , even for Gustavus’s remote location. $2 more got me some sausage added to it. While we ate, Lynn’s three employees came in and all chatted about bears, mail and how one of them was apparently out of a job because of slow business. They all also enjoyed cheesecake, which we had passed on in order to make it out the door for under $30.
We did get one good tip about wild strawberries that grow along the sea shore, so thanking Lynn for our wonderful meal (which did fill us up), we took the bikes back out toward the beach. Along the way, we stopped at the store for ice cream bars and watched as roller-blading kids hung out along the porch. I later learned that the arrival of paved roads meant that the kids now for the first time could try out roller-blading and skateboarding. It was sweeping the area, Sandy said. Unfortunately, it was driving the proprietor crazy. I shared with her the tip of tossing out small gravel so that the roller-bladers couldn’t skate. I guess we’ve had more experience in discouraging roller-bladers down in California.
Armed with ice cream, it was off to the beach. At the small pier, we had to get off the road due to paving equipment. We followed a path until it ended, seeing lots of strawberry plants but no actual berries. It then led us through what turned out to be wetlands. There were absolutely no signs saying to stay out, as you would see in Southern California. Perhaps there is just so much wetlands area up here that it doesn’t matter! At any rate, feeling somewhat guilty, we finally made it out and back onto the road.
Exhausted from our tramp through muck, it was back to the store. At this point, we decided that the store was obviously the main highlight of Gustavus, so we sat on the porch with our drinks and watched the people come and go. The best was when a young woman pulled up, got out of her truck, then ran back to it as it rolled forward and hit the store’s porch. No one and nothing was damaged, and we all had a good laugh about this runaway truck. Then the woman, Megan it turned out, starting talking with a friend of hers who was parked there about meeting once she got off work. They talked for about 15 minutes, leaving us wondering the entire time about what job it was she was supposed to be doing.
Finally, we left the store to which we’d lent so much financial support and headed home and to sleep.
Day 11 [August 15, 1996] saw us get up at 5 for a breakfast that was nothing like described in our brochure. We’d expected a great selection of pancakes, fresh fruit, orange juice and other choices. Instead, it was pancakes and coffee. Then we headed to Bartlett Cove and Glacier Bay.
We filed onto the tour boat along with all the other tourists, and then it was off on our 7 hour long sail. Fortunately, this boat came with a naturalist that was anything but clueless. She had answers to everything.
We settled in next to an older couple. The woman spend most of the trip upset that someone else they’d met were at a lodge that served three meals a day. We didn’t try to console here with our story of dining at Lynn’s.
Binocular rentals were only $2 each, so Lorna and I both had a pair. They got put to good use, because bears and whales were spotted as we headed up the bay.
Arriving at the glaciers was somewhat disappointing. We’d both expected these mile long stretches of ice that would dwarf the ship. Instead, they seemed much smaller, probably due to the distance we stayed back. That’s for safety, though, so you can’t complain much.
The Grand Pacific Glacier is the one that carved out Glacier Bay and then retreated back 40 miles over the past 200 years. It looked more like a wall of dirt rather than ice, due to all the rock fragments and chunks the ice it picks up as it moves across the land.
Next to it was the Margerie Glacier, which was much more spectacular looking. It was brilliant blue in some places, gleaming white in others. Margerie put on quite a show, too. Some ice began falling into the water, then a huge section right in the middle collapsed into the sea, sending up a huge wave that moved the boat. We were watching from the end of the boat and pointed directly at the glacier when it occurred. The naturalist said it was the best collapse she’d seen all summer. The size of the glaciers may have seemed disappointing, but we considered ourselves very fortunate to have seen that collapse.
I also found it extremely interesting to see all the valleys left behind by the various retreating glaciers. It so easy to see how they carved out the gaps, leaving nothing but bare earth in the way. It’s harder to see this in a place like Yosemite, since there’s been so much growth since the glaciers have retreated. In Glacier Bay, advances and receding are measured in years, not hundreds or thousands of years.
We stopped at a few more glaciers, then it was back to port. We had dinner at the cafe that was closed the first time we went. It was everything Lynn’s wasn’t: good food, friendly and good prices.
Day 12 [August 16, 1996] saw us at a loss. We’d really done all we wanted at Gustavus, not that there was much left to do short of kayaking, which we’ve both decided from experience looks like more fun that it is. Our flight out wasn’t until 5:30, but then there was a cancellation and we had only a few minutes to gather up stuff and leave. We scrambled but made it, up and away on another small plane and back to Juneau.
We were in good spirits, because of what would have been a wasted day in Gustavus, we now had plenty of time to explore Juneau. First off, we found a small hotel to say in. I had to do some work on the NetGuide article and needed a phone and a place to work for a few hours. We found a lovely place down where the cruise ships dock, a former brothel turned into an inn. Budget be damned, I figured–this was for work!
Before going to the hotel, we stopped off at Mendenhall Glacier. It’s a huge one, just outside of Juneau and quite pretty to look out. There’s also a stream nearby that was just filled with huge salmon swimming upstream to spawn. It was incredible to see them all struggling to move up in the shallow water. They were so clearly exhausted, and there were several dead ones about. It smelled awful, but apparently everything we saw, and smelled, was quite normal.
The dock area is very touristy, but in a pleasant sort of way. There are all sort of little shops, and there’s a historic feel to it all. Lorna did the laundry while I worked on the article, then we had a good explore and got dinner. After that, I stayed up working through the night on the article until it was time to leave at 4 a.m. for our ferry.
Day 13 [August 17, 1996] started with the early morning drive to the ferry. I got some advice from a car waiting behind us on putting screen over our radiator. I was trying to cover the headlights and the radiator grill in preparation for driving along the Alaska Highway, but he said it’s mainly bugs getting into the radiator to be worried about. I guess he’s right, because the screen I covered the grill with is full of bugs.
On board, we went right to sleep. About four hours later, we were getting off at Haines and heading up to meet the junction with the Alaska Highway. We had to cross into Canada, and I was worried about not having proper proof of insurance. Insurance never came up, but questions about banned items such as pepper spray did. Why yes, I do have pepper spray I said — and now I do not! Oh well, it probably wouldn’t have helped against bears much, anyway.
We hooked up with the highway and wondered what all the big fuss was about. The road seemed perfectly fine, and the scenery was spectacular. Then we hit the construction area, miles and miles of gravel roads, potholes and dips. Construction work can only be done in the summer, and they’re going full-out along this one stretch we traveled. Lorna drove most of it, and there were only two scary parts. A rock hit our windshield square on but didn’t crack it or leave any damage. Later, I hit an uneven part of the road and we bottomed out hard on one side of the car. Again, the Festiva came through fine and carries on like a trooper.
Day 14 [August 18, 1996] started with rain. We stopped and camped the day before at a place in Tok, and rain poured down in the early morning. The tent performed admirably, and we stayed perfectly dry though unwilling to move into the wet world beyond our fabric walls.
Eventually, we did get up and had breakfast at the campground’s cafe, known for its sourdough pancakes and reindeer sausage. The pancakes were great, but Lorna refused to eat the sausage, fearful of committing some type of sin against Santa Claus. I had one and found it spicy but great, although now I may have second thoughts as my stomach jumps around. It’s probably just reading in the car, not the revenge of Santa Claus or Rudolph.