Alaska 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

Our final day & we took a 7 1/2 hour Alaskan Train ride from Denali National Park to Anchorage. Our travelers loved the experience of riding leisurely on a train through what has to be the most beautiful scenery in North America. Once again the weather was at its usual fickleness, departing in sun and about 70 degrees only to drop about 10 degrees with clouds moving in even before we left Denali. On the ride the weather went from sunny & clear to cloudy to rain and back to sunny conditions.

Karen and Tom
8 hours to Anchorage 
Sunny train ride to Anchorage
On the way we saw Mt McKinley, a very rare happening we were told. That made it twice we saw it (once from Anchorage as noted in a previous blog report) which put us in the 30% Club. Visitors usually can only see Mt McKinley about 30% of the time and we saw it twice, a very rare occurrence indeed!  We were fortunate that when it was time to see and photograph Mt McKinley, the sun was bright allowing for some great pictures of this "hide & seek" mountain.
Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. South peak on left and north peak on right.
Mt McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America and with its height and ice/snow top actually creates its own weather in the form of clouds and fog. Locals say it can be seen clearly and within 10 minutes be shielded by its own generated clouds. 

After this exciting time of our trip, Wayne's camera was retired for the first time in 11 days for a well deserved rest. With Mt McKinley being that rare exception, we can say that no single part of Alaska is more beautiful than another, and if it is, it is due only to the "eyes of the beholder". From Ketchikan to Skagway to the Hubbard Glacier on to Anchorage and then to Denali, it was almost impossible to snap a picture wirhout  saying to yourself, "That's the best one!", only to take another just as beautiful. A wilderness Alaska may be, but it's a wilderness of depth, beauty and wonder. We're already looking for a return tour next June so mark those calendars!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Denali National Park, Alaska

This morning our group took part in various optional excursions in the park. Tom & Karen took a jet boat on a river, saw only a beaver but also panned for gold. Judy & Shirley took a helicopter ride to see Denali from above and had sunny weather to boot. They flew into a few snow flakes while flying high and low over the park. Judy said it was the highlight of her trip while Shirley said it was a highlight of her trip, since the trip wasn't over yet. Ray, Kathie & her brother-in-law went white-water river rafting in category 4 rapids and said they loved it. Wayne, Valerie and the Peterson's went to the Visitors Center at different times but all enjoyed it immensely. They had a great cafe, an 18 minute video on the park and a very nice historical display along with full size moose, bear and other animals and birds on display. Valerie & Wayne went on a Ranger-led botany hiking tour of about 1-1/2 miles which they found very informative and fun.

While waiting for their hike to begin, Valerie & Wayne talked to a couple that used to live in Connecticut and for the last 10 years have lived in Fairbanks. We asked about the cold winters but they only shrugged it off by saying they love it and shared that they were in Maine and found the weather to be colder "feeling" than Alaska. They also said that schools don't have indoor recess until the temperature hits -20 degrees, but for the primary children it's -15! When asked if they encounter bears, they shared they don't have many bears in their area but do have moose in their yard. We came away realizing it's a different and beautiful state and find it hard to believe it is part of the U.S. but conversations such as this opens up a new perspective and image of our neighbors in our 49th state.

This afternoon we took a 6-1/2 hour bus trip into the heart of Deneli National Park. We saw Caribou, Dall sheep and the highlight, a grizzly bear. In fact we saw the bear on the way in and on the way back. The first time it was over 600 yards off but on the return it was right on the side of the road, completely oblivious of our bus and another bus stopped to observe it.


The ride was quite interesting to say the least. The road is 1-1/2 lanes wide so passing other buses on the trip was interesting, especially when going through a pass with severe drop-offs without guard rails (as if they would stop a bus). However, experienced drivers traversed the situations with coolness and experience and I'm proof of this as I write this at 11:13 p.m. in full sunlight no less.

We were told the trip would be taken in a school bus driven on dirt roads and immediately everybody had visions of their elementary school days riding on the good old yellow bus. Well, they were school buses...but with padded seats and more comfort with more room than the yellow buses and very comfortable. We had several potty and stretch breaks and the time went by more quickly than we thought it would.

We found this tidbit interesting: Caribou really don't like to fight during the weeks before mating season. Instead they sort of strut around sizing each other up. This begins about 3 weeks before the actual mating begins. Sometimes a bull can bluff a rival into submission by using their wide antlers to shred a Willow bush as a show of strength. Sometimes they simply lock horns and push by butting heads and the one being pushed back realizes the other is his superior. However some times they need to fight it out and it may take over an hour before one leaves in defeat. In this manner, when mating season begins, the pecking order has been decided with the least amount of conflict.

The day ended with tired yet fulfilled and satisfied travelers hitting the sack with the thought of checking out of the Chalet we're staying at and departing  Deneli tomorrow. We'll be taking the much talked about "Alaskan Train" to Anchorage as our final day comes to a close in Alaska and what a way to finish our trip.

We will continue the blog with what transpires on the train and we hope we'll see much Alaskan wildlife on our last day.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Anchorage, Wasilla & Denali National Park

We departed Anchorage this a.m. but only after a short visit to the world's largest & most active Float Plane water runway in the world. There are such few roads in Alaska that it is easier and faster to use float planes. There are thousands of small runways and waterways for planes to land all over Alaska, including back roads. Only about 20% of Alaska is reachable by roads so planes rule. In the winter float planes exchange floats for ski runners to land on snow & ice. Same for planes with wheels. Swap for ski runners and you're ready to land, even without the need for an airport.

Anchorage, Alaska has the largest Float Plane airport in the world. The water is their runway!
We traveled north towards Denali National Park but first stopped and learned about the Iditarod dog sled race held annually. The race is 1,049 miles long across some of the most brutal snow and weather conditions in Alaska. Sleds with 16 dogs make this trek in about 10 days. The history of the Iditarod began with a diphtheria attack in Nome, Alaska back in 1925. It occurred in winter so only dog sleds could get the needed serum to Nome. They did it and saved the village.  In 1968, with the advent of more and more railroads, it was feared they would overshadow the dog sled and their importance. The people decided to hold the first overland dog sled race to draw attention to the value of dog sleds. The first was called the Serum Race and would cover the 1,049 miles ending in Nome. The ceremonial start of the race is in Anchorage with the actual race starting in Fairbanks. It was renamed Iditarod and continues to this very day. Women won 4 races and it created the slogan that "Alaska is for real men but the women win the Iditarod."

Wasilla, AK, where the famous dog sled race, the Iditarod,  runs through.

Ray, Liz, Tom and Karen finishing a ¼ mile loop with the dog sled on wheels. 
Two dogs from Valerie and Wayne's dog sled team.  We just love this picture!
Wayne & Valerie about to begin ¼ mile dog sled run in Wasilla. Eager team ready to run and run and run.
Our team is quickly reaching the finish line…as a team pulling together!
On the way to Denali Park we traveled a long flat stretch called Brown Pass. The road we were on is actually the Continental Divide. Water on one side flows south while on the other side it flows north!
Lunch break!
Ray, Liz, Valerie, Wayne, Karen and Tom with mountain range from Denali National Park in background
Inside Denali National Park...can you imagine size of
Bus to visitor center Denali Park going on a one hour walk with ranger
Someday travelers ready for adventers
Tomorrow we take "school buses" into the heart of Denali Park for a 6-8 hour ride in search of wildlife sightings, but also to enjoy the natural beauty of the park. Thank you for continuing to follow us on our Alaskan Cruise & Land Adventure!

Friday, June 15, 2012
Anchorage, Alaska
We landed in Seward after a rather bumpy ride across the Gulf of Alaska. In fact the rougher waters started the evening of June 14 and continued throughout the night. Not bad, but would think the waves were in 8-10’ range, probably less. Following disembarking in Seward we all loaded into our bus after meeting our guide MJ and our driver, Frank. We  toured Seward then went to the Alaska Sea Life Center on Resurrection Bay. Fascinating, especially with the identifying of all the species that were still recovering from the Valdez Oil Spill back in 1999.

Our guide, MJ, and Valerie
MJ explained that people come to Alaska for its natural beauty and not for 5-star hotels, etc. The majestic beauty was everywhere but she continued to remind us of why people come to Alaska.  Our first stop along the highway to Anchorage was for a potty break and immediately we knew what MJ was speaking about…the Way Stop had a Porta Potty (called a PortaCan in Alaska) and an outhouse similar to what you would find in one of our parks. The refreshments and beverages were sold out of a trailer parked in the parking lot. Welcome to the real Alaska I guess!  We continued to travel up Alaska Highway 1 traveling along side the Alaskan Railway and the Polk Inlet. Our next stop was at the Alaska Wildlife Center. I guess, if you don’t see the wildlife in their natural habitat, why not see them in enclosed areas. Much safer that way too. See the pictures but we saw Bison, brown bears, black bears, elk, moose, musk ox to name some but see the few pictures we sent.

What beautiful Musk Ox when they are small, but when they grow up???
Grown up Musk Ox
At least this baby moose doesn't scare me!

We stopped to eat along the way and ate reindeer chili and reindeer hotdogs (yes we actually did)! We were assured it was not Rudolph or one of the others in his bunch, though. We made it to Anchorage about 3:30 p.m., checked into our hotel, crashed for a couple of hours, and were up and at it again for a dinner at the Sourdough Mining Restaurant. Now this was an Alaska meal to remind you that you were in ALASKA! See the picture for more details. We ate such things as ribs, fritters, chicken, fries and topped it off with ice cream. We then went across the road to a gift shop that contained the world’s largest chocolate fountain. See the picture if you want to see this thing. While we couldn’t eat or dip into that chocolate fountain, they did have a fantastic array of chocolate selections plus a rather nice gift assortment, which some of our travelers indulged, weakened, then bought.
Almost all of our excellent travelers…what a group!
Anchorage dinner with PEO sisters 
That Brown Bear could smell those ribs and fritters Valerie ate!
Liz and Valerie World's largest chocolate fountain
Shirley having Fun
Judy with her buddies

We got back to the hotel to relax and prepare for yet another exciting day. One deterrent to sleep 
though (see, it is rather difficult to think of sleep, much less fall asleep) is when you see the sun about
“2 o’clock high” and it’s 8:30 p.m. I guess we don’t experience darkness here so need to pull our
blinds nice and tight to fake us southerner’s into thinking it is dark and bed time.  Right now it is 9:40
p.m. and it is light outside. Ummm…my body says sleep, my eyes say “Why? It’s still light outside”.
Which one wins will determine how I feel tomorrow I guess.

Tomorrow it’s off to Denali State Park. We will be staying at the McKinley Chalet Resort with a
much anticipated trip into Denali National Park for a 6-7 hour bus trip into and around the park. We
hope to see much wildlife, but just in case we don’t….we still have our pictures.

We stay in Denali June 16 & 17, returning to Anchorage on the famous Alaskan Railway for an 8
hour ride, again hoping to see wildlife beyond our expectations…but if not, we still have our
pictures….but you’ve heard that before.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Hubbard Glacier
Picture of the Hubbard Glacier from off ship, about 1600 feet away. 
Hubbard Glacier
Floating hunks of ice, ice bergs, from Hubbard  Glacier.

Valerie, bundled, with Hubbard Glacier behind her. It was maybe 43 degrees. 

Wayne golfing on board with the Hubbard Glacier in background…Radiance of the Seas
CAN LIFE GET BETTER? Golf on board with Hubbard Glacier in background

Resurrection Bay, Kenai Peninsula
Resurrection Bay, Kenai Peninsula 

There are two formal dinners on board the Radiance of the Sea. We all get dressed up and eat, have pictures taken, and just experience the “formality” of the evening. Enjoy the photos!

 Left to right at our first formal dinner:  Ray  & Liz Dax, Karen & Tom Schuppe, Shirley Frieler, Judy Stevenson, Valerie and Wayne in the Cascade Dining Room on the Radiance of the Seas

 Ray & Liz Dax dancing on formal night in the Centrum,  center of the ship.

 Shirley Frieler and Judy Stevenson

Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Skagway, Alaska
While others explored other excursions, Valerie & Wayne took a 3 1/2 hour train ride that followed the miner's trek on their way from Skagway to the Yukon in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. Tens of thousands of men & women flocked to Alaska during the depression going on in the US hoping to strike it rich. There were only two ways up the mountain on the way to the Yukon. It was 20.5 miles to the summit then another 580 miles from there. Miners had to have 2000 lbs of food/supplies to be allowed to go. Since they carried it all on their backs it took 9-10 trips up the White Pass, with corresponding numbers of trips down to get the rest of supplies.

The White Pass & Yukon Railway was built from May 1898 to Feb 1899 just to reach the summit and another 4 months to get to mine fields. It was built in weather that dropped to -40 degrees and through rocks, trees, granite and steep angles.  While over 100,000 men & women headed north,, only about 30,000-40,000 made it to the gold fields of the Klondike. Only about 4000 found gold and only a few hundred became rich.

Enjoy the pictures of the railway that followed the path of those early miners trying to become rich.

Tomorrow we have a "float by" past the glaciers of Hubbard.  We will be out of touch until Friday when we disembark in Seward, Alaska.

This is how pictures are taken from train cars…leaning outside for best shots even though with 1000’ drops.
Riding up Trail followed by miners in 1898 to Klondike Gold Rush. Ride and step out on back area of each rail car and take shots.

See us climb into the clouds...up in White Mountain Pass
Reminded me of the movie "The Polar Express"….conductor and all on the White Pass Railway train.
It is surely a long, long way down to bottom of railway.

Still many feet of snow at the summit…where Canada and US border occurs.
Deep snow left from plowing of tracks 
Summit of White Pass Trail signified by US and Canadian flags. 20.4 miles up hill all the way.
On a train White Pass Railway 
Mountains Deadhorse Trail
On the train ride Yukon White horse Pass
Top summit with flags of Canada and U S
Valerie & Wayne outside the RR car on the ride up the White Pass Railway - Skagway
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
We are all in Juneau, the Capital of Alaska and having a ball. Everyone went off on various excursions and "someday" others will share what they have done on their time. We are sitting in the famous Red Dog Saloon with sawdust floors and the "Red Ladies of Juneau", etc. Tom & Karen joined us for a light snack and the place is hopping with singing and jovial attendees.

Our day began with a trip to the famous Mendelhall Glacier. Pictures are the best way to describe it so enjoy the photos below. 
We hiked the trails taking pictures and were joined by Ray & Liz Dax.  

Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau's Tongass National Forest

Afterwards we went to a salmon hatchery. In the early period of Alaska salmon was almost extinct when a high school teacher did an experiment. He took 200 eggs which when incubated were released into the wild. The majority returned to their birthing place, as is their instinct, and today this independent hatchery raises over...prepare yourself...over 150,000,000 each year!

Following the hatchery we took the Mt. Roberts Mountain via the tram. 3000 ft above sea level. Wonderful view, great eating and nature center. The walking paths were closed and do you know why? They were snow covered! Roughly 3' high, plus conditions which favored avalanches. I even threw a snowball at Valerie!

Yup!  That's snow...

 We did something on my Bucket List...panning for gold...flakes that is! The Peterson family, all 6, were on the same trip. We were guaranteed to find (panning) gold and keep what we found. We all took home golf flakes for our "memories". I have a new appreciation for the work it takes. I managed about 9 flakes and Valerie about 5. Now valued at .25 so we didn't recoup our excursion price but the memories will be priceless.

Wayne panning for gold
The Peterson family panning for gold

Well, the Red Dog Saloon is closing down...just kidding, it's only 5 p.m. Alaska time. Tomorrow is Skagway.  Until then, enjoy some additional photos from our time in Juneau today.

View from the Red Dog Saloon
Wayne finally found a bear!

Our ship from above

Monday, June 11, 2012

We are currently docked in Icy Strait Point, Alaska. This port of call has only been in existance since 2006 so it is truly "Alaska". It is the home of the Hoonah people and is wonderfully quaint, but it is learning how to offer cruise ship travelers opportunities to explore and experience fun and excitement. For example, it is already the home of the U.S.'s longest free standing Zip Line. It's over 6000' in length and rider's reach a speed of over 60 mph on their magical ride. Of course, not being lovers of "magic", we all declined such a thrill trading it for Whale Watching, Bear Watching, seeing a Glacier Garden and local tribal dancing, etc.  We're here for 9 hours, plus being so small with no deep harbor for docking, we enjoyed being taken to and from the ship in Tenders (small boats which each hold 120 passengers) and if never experienced, added to the adventure.
We had to take tenders (small boats) to shore at Icy Strait Point
On shore with Radiance of the Seas  in background and tenders we used to get ashore.

Valerie & I took both the Whale and Bear watching trips, about 5 hrs for both. While we were skunked on the bear exhibition (we did see a bear carved out of a tree trunk though!), we had a breathtaking walk thru the woods and streams with an excellent local native guide. It was a neat experience with the guide in front, a second bringing up the rear to keep straglers from falling behind while also being in radio contact with another person with the rifle! Come to think of it, maybe a 6000' zip line free fall wasn't such a bad idea. Really, it is extremely safe and we had fun.

We weren't skunked out in seeing Hump back whales, seeing about 10...well, seeing their water spouts or back and the majestic 15' wide tails as they used them to propel themselves down to deeper water to feed on herring. While they only stayed down 8-10 minutes, they can remain submerged for over an hour. I got some "questionable" pics but met a skilled photographer who said he'd send us a few pictures. It was quite windy and cold, 50ish and maybe 30 mph winds, but the inside was warm. Still, it is a recommended trip for anyone going to Alaska.

Opps, I almost forgot an interesting tidbit.  Icy Strait Point has a population of 760 people and a population of over 3500 bears (that's about 5 people for each bear!).  Now we know why we had a guy with a gun on our trail! Our guide did share that on one walking tour they saw 13 bears in the stream below the trail. In fact the "trail guide" that followed us today said that while waiting for us at the beginning of trail (about 3 miles outside village) a mother Brown bear and a cub walked out of the woods carefree as can be right off the trail itself. He said, "And me without a rifle so I just stood there and let them pass".

Shirley Frieler shared that today (Monday) when she got back on ship she was stopped at the security check (they have security checks just like the airport does). Well, she emptied her pockets, placed her bag and purse on the conveyor and walked through the security scanner. It beeped. She said she had nothing in her pockets so she tried again. Beep! She emptied her pockets and found a brownie she had purchased on shore! Sure enough the brownie was causing the beep. They let her keep it, she ate it and now we're waiting for the "glow" to show. So far she says she is ok.

More updates to follow after Juneau on Tuesday and Skagway on Wednesday.  On Thursday it's floating around and past Hubbard Glacier before we dock at Seward to begin our 5 day land adventure.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Valerie & I are sitting in a tiny eating establishment in Ketchikan, Alaska sending this blog. We've delayed sending any blogs from the ship since internet fees on board are outrageous. Travelers have opted for varied on shore excursions and we hope to have comments from some in the next blog message. Valerie & I walked the city and saw the Herritage Totem Pole Center, Fish Hatchery and the live eagles on display. We hope to see the Lumberjack show b4 returning to ship.

Cruising is not unlike a floating city of entertainment. We departed Chicago for Vancouver Friday and after the usual "boarding procedure", we boarded the Radiance of the Seas (Royal Caribbean Cruise lines).  It is a fantastic ship, refurbished in Oct 2010 and we see why they are the top rated cruise line 9 of last 10 years. Let's share a bit of our "roughing it" on board. We have available for our convenience 2 pools, a jogging path, BB court, movie theater, rock climbing, floor shows with many other top entertainment in various sites on ship along with chances to dance or simply watch; 9-10 restaurants, a casino, contests of every kind like Texas Hold-em, art auctions, gift shops  and more and more. Yes, a virtual self-contained floating entertainment center!

Our ship is carrying about 2200 passengers, is 50 ton and is a smaller vessal. It gets dark around 10 p.m. and as we move north it'll be light until around midnight we're told.

Our cruise ship, Radiance of the Seas (Royal Caribbean Cruise line)
Outside pool on the Radiance of the Seas
Valerie  on steps in the Cascade Dining room

Our travelers all have My-Time dining which means we eat on "our time" and is a sit down meal with exquisite menu options, all included in the tour.
Tom and Karen at dinner
Ray and Liz at dinner

Shirley and Judy at dinner

Some fun facts about Alaska:  it rains about 300 days of the year and they get about 12 1/2 ' of rain each year.  Also,  instead of airports of cement they have seaplane airports of water with planes taking off and landing right next to the ships! Neat to see.

Tomorrow we'll be in Icy Strait Point Alaska for whale watching and other adventures...until our next message, take care!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

We are in Chicago waiting for our flight tomorow to Vancouver. All 14 of us arrived safely. Rather than leave Fond du Lac at 2:30 a.m. we're spending the night near O'Hare. We depart for our destination at 8:14 a.m. which means we are leaving the hotel around 5:30 a.m.  

The best part of our journey today was the dinner we experienced tonight as a group. Great community, great food and great connections! 

We will have inconsistent blogs during this trip since we can only access the site while on shore at our Port of Calls. Our first stop, obviously, is Vancouver where we will board The Radiance of the Seas with an overnight trip to the Inner Passage. First stop: Ketchikan!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"We are off to Alaska"!  With a great group of travelers...actually we leave Thursday at 1:00 p.m. from Fond du Lac to a hotel near O'Hare Airport.  Our shuttle takes us to the airport on Friday at 5:00 a.m.!!!!

Our suitcases are packed and weighed (no embarrassing airport moments of handing off shoes to lighten the load this time!). We are loaded down with our binoculars, cameras, laptop to write the blog, our Nooks to read from, swimsuits and turtlenecks if it is cold.

So why are we leaving beautiful, warm Wisconsin and wearing layers, gloves, scarf and hat plus rain gear for the next ten days and wool socks?  TO see the icebergs of course....ummm this is so not me (Valerie) as I thrive in heat.  I may be the only one inside as everyone else is out on the deck watching the ice float by....I will keep you posted!

Be well, enjoy the warm weather and we will send photos and write when ever we are off the ship.

"Making Someday Travel Dreams Come True"

Valerie and Wayne Graczyk