Thursday, August 20, 2009


Ketchikan was the last city my parents and I visited on our Alaska Inside Passage vacation, and to tell the truth, I was a little disappointed.

We had hoped to visit Misty Fjords National Monument to see the 3000-foot rock walls jutting out of the ocean. But it was foggy and raining, and so our flightseeing tour was canceled. I started off on a tour to go sea kayaking among orcas, but it, too, was canceled due to the weather.

Ketchikan is famous for its weather, getting nearly 13 feet of rainfall each year. The town proudly displays this fact on the prominent "liquid sunshine" rain gauge you see near the place where the cruise ships dock.

Despite the disappointing rain, Ketchikan is still a beautiful place, just like the rest of south east Alaska.
Here's what it looks like as you arrive on the ferry:

Here's the cute "Creek Street", where tour guides tell fun stories about people using canoes and trap doors to smuggle bootleg whiskey into the homes and businesses along there during the Prohibition era.

If you visit Ketchikan, you can be entertained at the Great American Lumberjack Show, where the big burly guys compete against each other for your applause:

You can visit the Totem Bight park and see tons of totem poles:

You can smile at some of the "streets" that have names and appear on the map, even though they are really just stairs climbing up the side of a mountain:

I was charmed by these flowers growing in boots at a home near there:

My favorite part of Ketchikan, though, was watching the high school football team practice:

Because they get so much rain, a grass field would be WAY too muddy to play on, so the kids play on asphalt instead. They're tough. They don't let a little rain (or a lot of it) stop them.

Life is football practice sometimes. In the rain. On the asphalt. During those times, I hope to remember the Ketchikan kids, and persevere in the rain, just like they did.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Beautiful Juneau

Juneau is unlike any state capital I've ever visited. If you arrive by ferry, you'll see this unique sign as you leave the terminal:

Yup. The road ends. Unless you are into blazing your own roads with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you can't drive to Juneau, because there's no road that goes there. You must take a boat or a plane to get to this beautiful jewel of a place.

I found Juneau to be quaint and cute, clinging as it does to the side of steep forested mountains. At first, I was surprised by its narrow little streets (especially when the GPS told me to take a left turn just past the Governor's Mansion, which really meant "do a 180 degree hairpin turn and go up that incredibly steep, narrow lane") But, the longer I explored, the more charmed I became by this former mining town.

As I made my way to the "Last Chance" mine, I passed sweet little houses, clinging to hillsides, covered in flowers, like this one:

And even drove across a wooden road, built on top of beams extending from the mountain side:
The Last Chance Mine has a museum with a cranky hostess and lots of leftover junk--ahh, I mean former mining equipment--in it. If you hike a short distance above the museum, you'll see some of the junk left around this stream:

If you're lucky (or if you're on a cruise ship tour), you might see a Gold Miner panning for gold, like this one:

I believe this guy maintains his beard and costume for the benefit of the tourists, who also pan for gold. I happened to be lucky and be there at the time a real miner was panning for gold. Unfortunately, I didn't think to get a photo of the real miner as he excitedly showed me what he'd found that day (maybe because he wasn't in costume, and just looked like a regular guy). He held up a little plastic bottle so I could see the little flecks of gold dust he'd found that day. He planned to make a pair of earrings out of the gold he found; he was retired and this was his daily hobby.

My favorite part of visiting the Last Chance Mine was taking a hike along the Perserverence Trail, which was the first road in Alaska. I liked it so much that I hiked it twice...once alone and once with my parents. It's a steep trail, as you can see in this photo of my parents climbing it:

But you are rewarded with beautiful views of this waterfall

And the opportunity to see mining equipment and mine shafts, like this one, along the way:

You can see some metal beams protruding from the mountain in this one--these beams once supported Alaska's first road.

Funny thing is: as my parents and I were hiking along here, we met a guy who works in the same office building as myself in Salt Lake City. It's definitely a small world.

Another highlight of Juneau was visiting a salmon hatchery there. We found it entertaining to watch the salmon jumping up the fish ladder. Here's a little video showing that:

For those of you who can't see video, here's a photo of the fish ladder. All of the disturbance in the water at the base of the ladder are all the agitated salmon, jumping and moving and anxious to get going on their journey back to the place they were spawned. They like to jump out of the water even when it's not necessary...just for the joy of it.

Once the fish make it to the top of the ladder, some of the workers have to separate them out by species, because some of the species will fight. Here's a little video of a worker pulling out a king salmon.

Mendenhall Glacier, the world's only drive-up glacier, is another Juneau Highlight. Here's a photo where you can see the glacier, the icebergs it creates, the waterfall nearby, and most importantly, my sweet parents:

We took one of the nature trails near there, and saw a black bear (plus a lot of the salmon carcasses that he had fished out of the water, taken a few bites of, and left on the bank).

Another of my favorite spots in Juneau is the St. Therese shrine, which is near where the road ends. It's a beautiful, restful spot. It's a perfect place for contemplation. Here are a few shots from there:

This is called the "Merciful Love Prayer Labyrinth"

This beautiful shrine is on an island just off the shore (with a causeway so you can walk to it). It has a little trail you can follow to smaller monuments that represent key moments in the Savior's life.

Finally, I loved this view from the Good Shepherd Bridge.

Juneau also has a wonderful museum about Alaska. I loved learning about the struggles it went through to become a state, just over 50 years ago. Unfortunately, I ran out of time before I could fully enjoy all of the museum exhibits about Alaska's wildlife and history. As I left the museum to catch my ferry that day, I told myself that I would plan to come back sometime to finish looking around.

I'll end with some of my other favorite photos I took in Juneau...ones that remind me of my hope to fly or boat there again some day!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Icebergs, Seals, Waterfalls and Whales

As the iceberg scraped against our boat, it made an unfriendly grinding sound, but I wasn't worried. By this time in our journey to Tracy Arm Fjord, I was 100% confident that our Captain, Steve Weber, knew what he was doing. For many summers, he's daily taken visitors into this wonderland of waterfalls, glaciers, seals, whales, and yes, icebergs. He skillfully navigated us through them all, giving us the experience of a lifetime. Here he is, confidently pushing an iceberg away with a stick:

The adventure started early that day. Just after we boarded Steve's 56-foot boat in Juneau, we noticed that the captain of the huge cruise ship that towered over us didn't seem to realize that our little boat was there. At first, the tourists on both ships were having fun yelling greetings to each other, but when the cruise ship kept getting closer, and Closer, and CLOSER, Captain Steve realized that the situation was getting serious, and so he pulled our little boat out into the harbor. Here's what the big cruise ship looked like as we hurried away:

"That was a little too close for comfort!" Steve boomed over the PA system. "If you have to start yelling "Don't spit!" to the passengers on the deck of the ship above you, then you've got a problem! Usually those cruise-ship captains are excellent--I'm not sure what went wrong today. Anywho, I left my employees back on the land there, so we'll have to swing back around to get them once the big cruise ship gets out of the way."

Soon, the employees were on board and we started the 45-mile journey to the entrance of Tracy Arm Fjord, passing the beautiful Alaska scenery, like this, along the way:

Along the way, we enjoyed seeing Captain Steve guide the boat with his feet on the wheel.

Captain Steve invited us to feel free to move around the boat, including coming up to sit by him. "The chain across the stairs by me is not here to keep you out", he explained. "It's here to remind you that the stairs you had to climb to visit me are still there when it's time for you to climb back down. People forget that sometimes!"

We all enjoyed moving around the boat, visiting with each other, and seeing our first glimpses of icebergs. At first, we were excited to see even little icebergs, but the house-sized icebergs at the entrance to Tracy Arm Fjord spoiled us, and we were much harder to impress after that. Captain Steve took the boat in a big circle around the big blue one here, so we could get a good view of it:

Here's a closeup of the jagged edge of it:

The iceberg is blue because the weight of the glacier from which it came packed the ice so dense that the long-wavelength blue light can't get through it, and is reflected back.

Next, we made our way into the steep-walled fjord, where we began to see gorgeous waterfalls in the distance.

Another thing we noticed right away was the beautiful teal color of the water in the fjord, which is related to something from the glaciers that is suspended in the water (sorry, I forgot what that something was):

The interesting thing about fjords is that not only are the walls really steep above water, but the walls are steep BELOW the water too. As a consequence, our little boat could go right up close-and-personal to the walls--I even touched the rock wall at one point while we were checking out this waterfall:

I had fun pretending to wash my hair in another waterfall:

And capturing this photo from the side of the waterfall:

The waterfalls dropped very long distances. If you look closely in this photo, you can see the waterfall which starts high up in the green section of the mountain, and cascades it's way down to a great big drop at the bottom:

As if the gorgeous waterfalls were not enough, we soon begin to approach the South Sawyer glacier. The area around this glacier was filled with the icebergs it had created, as large chunks of ice "calved", or fell, off the glacier.

This is where the icebergs began scraping the boat, but Captain Steve just slowly and patiently guided us through them. I mentioned before that we were free to go anywhere on the boat, but that wasn't completely true. There was one place that was strictly forbidden. This area was marked out with red tape. If we stood there, we'd block Captain Steve's view, which just wouldn't be cool while he's trying to navigate through icebergs. Here's a fun photo my mom caught of all the folks trying to take photos, while also trying to stay out of the forbidden area:

Once we got close enough for a good view of the glacier, Captain Steve turned off the motor, and we just relaxed there for 45 minutes or so, enjoying the view and waiting for the glacier to calve.

During that time, I captured this photo of the brilliant blue portion of the glacier:

Here's a photo of my parents and I:

Finally, the glacier began to calve. As the ice fell down, it created a huge splash and then a huge wave that gradually made its way out to rock our boat. For those of you who can't watch videos, here's a photo of a glacier just as a large piece is falling:

Here's a video that my mother captured of it:

Before we left the area, Captain Steve motored us to a place where hundreds of seals were basking on icebergs.

Here's a closer seal photo:

We then made our way to the North Sawyer Glacier, which isn't as impressive. Here's a photo of it:

Along the way out of the Fjord, we stopped to pick up a man and a woman kayaker, who had camped on an island there. Captain Steve was clearly a pro at loading people and kayaks into the boat. He'd been frustrated by the guy when he dropped him off the day before, because the guy kept insisting on how it should be done (and was wrong). So when captain Steve first saw them from a distance he said something like "Amazingly, they're still alive!" Tell us how you really feel Captain Steve! He was able to get them loaded into the boat again without a problem.

We were happy and content as we made our way back to Juneau, but then had another awe-inspiring experience. We encountered two humpback whales, who were very close to our boat, and who were in the mood to jump. The two of them launched themselves out of the water, falling back again with a crashing splash, at least a dozen times each. My camera's memory card was full, so as the whales went underwater for a few minutes between jumps, I deleted photos as fast as I could to capture their leaps for joy.

Here are a few videos of the whales:

When they show their tail like this, they are often diving deep.

Sometimes they just like to slap the water, like this:

For those who can't view videos, here are a few photos:

I found myself filled with awe at this display. Unfortunately, one of the passengers on our boat had a flight to catch, so we could linger no longer and had to move on after watching them for about 30 minutes. One of the employees, who'd spent the entire summer doing this, said she'd never seen anything like it. As we pulled away from that spot, Captain Steve said over the PA, in a reverent tone: "THAT was a very special experience." I had to agree.

I love Alaska.

Here's a link to Captain Steve's website, in case you'd like to take a trip like this yourself someday: I highly recommend it!