Stephanie is one of those persons who can fit a lot of words onto a standard size postcard -- usually by writing sideways, around corners, and even upside down if she can find some extra space. Most of these go to family and friends. But some of them -- those which document our RV adventures -- find their way onto this portion of our website.
Postcard: North to Alaska!
May 20, 2016
Next week Tom and I will be at the Alaska State ferry dock in Bellingham Washington, in line to drive our new Winnebago Navion aboard the ferry Columbia. Three days later, we'll disembark in Haines, and start our Alaska/Yukon/Northern British Columbia adventure. Those three days will have been a showcase of southeastern Alaska, a glimpse you can get best from the decks of the state ferry.
Travel on these boats falls somewhere between a traditional ferry ride (cars and people for a short trip), and a cruise ship vacation. On the Alaska ferries, you’ll find cabins, restaurants and a gift shop. As an additional seasonal bonus, on board naturalists give lectures on the areas you are traveling through and wildlife you may see along the route. Many folk who travel on these ferries do not reserve a cabin: an upper deck solarium area, complete with reclining chairs, provides plenty of space for a sleeping bag. And if you can pitch a tent, who needs a cabin? Traveling this way is not nearly as luxurious as on a cruise ship, but you get to see the “real” Inside Passage . You can meet the people who are heading north for a summer job, or the people who live there, and are headed home.
The days break down as follows. The longest leg of the journey is from Bellingham to Ketchikan -- 38 hours. This is also the only segment with any "open ocean” crossing, and there are two: one across Queen Charlotte Sound at the north end of Vancouver Island; and another, shorter but, in our experience rougher, further north at Dixon Entrance.
Once across Dixon Entrance, the waterway narrows dramatically and the famed “Inland Passage” begins. Now the boat traverses some of the most beautiful places on earth, past the scenery of which postcards are made: soaring eagles, beautiful waterfalls, small Native towns (some open to visitors, others not).
Coming into Ketchikan can be a somewhat frustrating experience. The ship loudspeaker will announce, “now arriving Ketchikan”, and everyone will flock to the railings to watch as this picturesque town slides into view. First comes the downtown, with its shops and museums which makes me fairly itch to go exploring. But the boat will glide smoothly on. The ferry dock is about 3 miles from the town center, and unless you take a taxi, too far to walk and return before the boat sails for ports farther north. However, not to worry. It will be Sunday, and most of those intriguing stores will be closed anyway. Save Ketchikan for another visit.
6 hours after leaving Ketchikan, and after traversing Wrangell Narrows, the ship will dock In Wrangell town. Don’t look for any mega cruise ships here. The waterway is both too narrow (hence the name), and too shallow for those ships to experience this very special section of Alaska. It is, however, one of the most interesting parts of the trip. You can almost touch the marshy land on either side of the boat. The ferry transits the Narrows by following a complex path of lights, red on the right, green to the left. And somehow manages not to go aground en route to a fascinating little Alaskan town.
After docking in Wrangell, my first stop will be at the garnet tables. The Boys and Girls club of Wrangell has the exclusive right to sell garnets from a nearby mine, and their wares will be spread on several long makeshift tables. Some garnets come just as they were taken from the mine - still imbedded in the rocks from the mine. Others are single stones. All are beautiful. Next, if there’s time before the ship leaves, we’ll take a walk through this tiny picturesque village, always keeping an ear out for the ship’s departure horn.
Three hours later, we’ll arrive in Petersburg. While it may be getting late by your watch’s standards, Alaska in June seldom sees much darkness. The first time we took this trip, I brought my telescope so I could see the stars. The trouble was - it never got dark enough to see the night sky! The Little League baseball games didn’t even start until after 10PM.
Next stop - Juneau, As we come into town. there’s a great view of the Mendenhall Glacier. - unfortunately currently famous more for the amount of ice it has lost the past few years than for its icy beauty. Again the ferry dock is not close to town. The stay here is relatively short; then on to Haines. There Tom and I plan to leave the Columbia, which will make the final one hour trip to Skagway before turning around to head south once again.
Debarking the ship in Haines, we start what, in many ways, will be a new experience for us. It’s not that we haven't been to Alaska before: we’ve taken this trip enough times I’ve lost count - 7? - 8?, over the past 20+ years,. But this will be our first extended trip in our new RV. We sold our 2007 Alpine almost a year ago. It now has a happy home just up the coast in Newport, Oregon and we will do our traveling in a 25' Winnebago Navion. There have been adjustments to make and new systems to learn, but we are coping well. I wondered about the size difference -- would we feel cramped? Would we find places to put those absolutely essential items? How about the not-so-essential items, the ones you really enjoy having? Some areas of the new coach seem much smaller than I'm used to. Others have so much space that I wonder just what I’ll put in them. Tom has a stock answer to any of my questions where we can put our “stuff”. “We’ll put in in the Fiat”.
Getting the smaller rig meant finding a smaller tow car. While we have seen Navions pulling cars as heavy as our last toad, a jeep Wrangler, we decided to downsize in this area also. We downsized to a Fiat. Not just any Fiat, this is a “retro” 1957 model -- baby blue and white with matching blue wheels and brown leather seats. Needless to say, it draws smiles and attention wherever it goes, A big burley man walking an equally big burley dog, took one look and said, "Ooh, it's adorable". We've heard, "That's so cute", or, “Is it fast”? and today, "My wife wants one. Where did you get it". And it tows like a dream. Hitch it up, put it in neutral (did I mention it was manual?), put the keys in your pocket and off you go! A far cry from the checklist I needed when we towed the Wrangler.
When we got the little car, it had backseats. However, these were impossibly small, hard to get into, and would have been extremely uncomfortable for anyone of any size to ride in for longer than a few minutes. Fiat’s answer to that is something called the rear seat delete kit. The next-to-unusable rear seats are removed, and a very spacious level deck installed. Presto! A two seater with a large cargo space. We kept the seats, in case the next owner wants to put them back.
So, we’re almost ready to go. In the time remaining before our sailing, we’ll load our new RV with the clothes, food, binoculars, computers and the absolutely indispensable “Alaska Milepost”. This book provides a mile-by-mile description of the more than 15,000 miles you can travel throughout Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Each of the 22 major highways has its own special section with detailed maps covering the area’s roads. Places to go, things to see, (and the best time to see them), fuel stops, where to dine, where to stay (including RV parks/campgrounds), all are listed.
When we leave Haines, we will drive the 150 miles to Haines Junction. We'll likely not make it all the way, because our notes from the past remind us that Kathleen Lake, which is in Kluane National Park, offers a Yukon government campground with beautifully maintained, well spaced sites.
Lake and mountain views are spectacular. The only "amenity" we'll find here is free firewood. And the nightly fee is trivial. Then just up the road the Haines Highway joins the Alaska Highway, and decision #1 awaits us. Do we turn left and head toward Alaska or turn right and head toward Whitehorse and a more careful exploration of the Yukon Territory? As of this writing, we are unsure just which direction we will take. We have about a month to get back to Bend. Just how much of that month will we use?
Postcard: A Tale of Three Cities
September 30, 2015
Kushiro. I am just beginning to realize how immense is the North Pacific Ocean. It took the Silver Shadow, averaging around 15 knots, two full days to reach Kushiro on the southeastern coast of Hokkaido. About a mile off shore, we were met by a pilot boat and escorted to the pier. No more anchoring out and tendering in.
The Japanese thoroughly outdo the Russians when it comes to a long, drawn out immigration process. Tom & I had opted not to take a tour here, so had no bus to catch. That meant, of course, we were at the back of the line when it came to getting all our paperwork done. We had already filled out the Japanese immigration cards; now we had to stand in line to redeem our passports, then stand in line to be fingerprinted and have our passport pictures matched with our persons. But that was it. For the rest of our stay in Japan, our passports will be in our possession; no more immigration lines.
Kushiro literally laid out the red carpet for us. Not only was there actually such a carpet to walk over as you left the ship, but there were signs welcoming the Silver Shadow, and helpful persons at every turn. The concierge desk had been taken over by two folks with Kushiro volunteer badges and detailed maps. Any questions concerning changing dollars into yen (use the nearby 7Eleven), or the best route to the Washo Fish Market, or what was going on at “MOO”, the Kushiro Fisherman’s Wharf, were answered thoroughly, and with smiles. When we got off the ship, there were folks waiting to answer any last minute questions, or rent you a bicycle, or sell you some ice cream.
We walked along the waterfront to MOO, noticing as we went along the number of “long line” fishing vessels tied to the pier. Each of these boats fairly bristled with downriggers - later to be baited and extended out for fishing. Stored in the upright position, they made the boats look like they were ready for some sort of war - loaded with rockets!
MOO itself is a large building housing a fish/meat/vegetable market. At the entrance to the souvenir section, a large bowl held dozens of the endangered Japanese cranes - in Origami form.. The crane has been brought back from the verge of extinction and now numbers in the hundreds. One of the tours offered on this trip was to the Koshiro Shitsugen National Park, where a walk along a marshlands boardwalk would hopefully provide views of this bird.
Next door to MOO is EGG - the Kushiro International Exchange Volunteer Association. Kushiro doesn’t get many cruise ships - the Silver Shadow was only the 7th, non-Japanese ship this season, and this association was putting on a show for us. In one section, two women were learning how to put on a kimono, something that involves a great deal more than just slipping on a comfortable robe. You could sip tea in a Japanese tea ceremony, or learn Japanese calligraphy. Or make a Japanese crane origami. (So that’s where all those came from)!
Just outside the EGG, a bridge crosses the Kushiro River. On that bridge are four statues representing the seasons. A gull had decided that the head of one was a perfect resting place. Dozens of passers-by were taking his picture, but he had no intention of leaving.
Next we headed toward the Washo Fish Market. We walked up the Kita-Odori. a wide, 4 lane street with remarkably little traffic. Or perhaps it just seemed that way. The Japanese appear to be very courteous drivers, no speeding or unnecessary horn blasts. The only noise came from the traffic signals. Each time one turned red, a melodious voice came on, speaking incessantly until the light turned green again. We could only guess what she was saying. As we crossed one street, we noticed the manhole covers, each embossed with Japanese cranes.
We had heard about eating at the Washo Ichiba (Fish) Market. The restaurants here are not the sort where you sit at a table and order from a menu — here it helps to either be brave or read Japanese. Rounding a corner in the market, we found a group of people all holding bowls of rice. They were gathered around a woman standing behind a counter with small amounts of various fish, scallops, squid, octopus, sea urchins, etc. They would point at one delicacy, and she would put it on top of their rice. When they had all the fish they wanted, they went to a nearby table, already set with chopsticks, napkins and teriyaki sauce, to enjoy their meal. It was a very popular spot.
It was a longer walk back to the ship than we had anticipated. I now better understand the term “foot sore” . As the ship left, we were serenaded by a clarinet and waves from a good sized crowd.
Hakodate. Our welcome to Hakodate came early the next morning. As we were heading toward the pier, we were passed by a fire boat. A “Welcome to Hakodate” banner decorated one side, and it was shooting streams of red, green blue and yellow water from its turret. Perhaps there’s a competition between these cities to see which can offer the best welcome?
Our Hakodate Highlights tour left portside promptly at 9:15 am, and headed for the Morning Market. The market covers several square blocks and sells everything and anything anyone could possibly want. Therefore, it is one of the most crowded areas I’ve ever seen, Our tour director held a small Japanese flag over her head as she walked along, and we clung to her like ducklings.
If the Japanese crane is Kushiro’s “mascot”, the squid is Hakodate’s. Manhole covers here feature three orange squid. Our guide explained that squid is one of the favored items on the daily menu, and we saw tank after tank of these unusual creatures. In one spot, a vendor handed two giggling Japanese girls a small baited pole. One held it over a tank and very quickly pulled a large, wiggling squid from the water. I never saw them actually buy it, but they thoroughly enjoyed taking a “selfie” with it.
King crab (or its Japanese equivalent) is also very popular. In another part of the market, a woman was weighing a huge crab. She started by tying two of its legs together, then picked it up and threw it on the scales. It hung off on all sides.
Next stop was at Goryokaku Tower, a 50 meter tall tower looming over an historic fort. En route to the tower, our guide had given us a short talk about the fort. It dates from the Meiji Restoration period, circa 1855. Our guide explained that the Meiji wanted to end the shogunate. However, in this process, many of the shoguns “lost their jobs” (our guide’s term). A group of about 3,000, loyal to the old regime and their old jobs, resisted for 6 months before being forced to surrender.
From the observation deck atop the Tower, we had a 360 degree view of the city. Looking down provided a great glimpse of the park surrounding the fort.
Our last stop was at Mt. Hakodate. The bus parked at the foot of the 1100 foot mountain and we took the “ropeway” to the top. “Ropeway” sounded at first like a reverse zip line, but its actually a cable car — this one large enough for 125 passengers. At the top, a group of pre-school Japanese children were practicing saying “hello”. They couldn’t possibly have been cuter.
On to Aomori.
We docked in Aomori early the next morning. Aomori is the home of the Nebuta Matsuri Festival, held each year in early August. At that time, illuminated floats of giant samurai figures are paraded through the streets, and dancers run alongside them, jumping and dancing crazily. To welcome us, a small band played festival music with drums and flutes, while Hapi coated dancers jumped and twirled. Pictures of samurai warriors, grimacing ferociously, had been mounted atop poles, and the dancers twirled and shook them as they danced.
Our stay in Aomori would be fairly brief. We had docked at 8AM, and would leave at 4. The tours today were all out of the city - to a nearby town to see the beautiful pottery, through the mountains to enjoy the natural beauty of Japan, or to an historic castle and a visit to Nebuta Village, home of the famous festival. If you took one of these interesting tours, however, you wouldn’t get to see much of Aomori itself. We had decided to forego the tours and just take a walk around town.
Several small booths were set up on the pier. One had food for sale, another souvenirs, and the third was the tourist information booth. This booth was manned by a young couple - one American and one English. They have been living here long enough to consider Aomori their home, and yes, both spoke Japanese. Learning we were on our own today, they recommended the Aomori Walk Map.
Once off the very wide main street, we had to depend on our Walk Map. We could trace our route by noting hotels, shrines and department stores. These were were marked with red circles, and we could also see the harbor, so there was little danger of getting lost.
Attracted by the noise of chain saws, we stopped at an attractive, closed gate. Checking our map, we placed ourselves at the Utoh Shrine. Gardeners were busily at work removing a large cedar tree from the gardens, and the shrine was closed this morning. We walked through the Furukawa Fresh Market, much smaller and also far less crowded than the Morning Market, We stopped at the Machi-machi Plaza, a mall with souvenir stores, clothing stores and several restaurants. Taking a break from all this walking, we found a convenient padded bench, and best internet connections we’d enjoyed in a couple of days. Sitting just down the bench from us, we recognized someone else from the ship. He was busily getting his email, and had his copy of the Walk Map spread out on his lap.
Bicycles. Many Japanese use bicycles as their means of transportation around Aomori. We saw dozens of bikes parked in front of the Machi-machi, and at first I didn’t realize they were locked. Not with the cable chains and padlocks found in the States; crime is very low in Japan, and the only locks on these bicycles are small round rings. They prevent the rear tire from rotating, but someone could easily pick up the entire bike and walk away with it. That doesn’t seem to be a problem here.
As we headed back toward the ship, we stopped at the Aomori Prefectural Center for Industry and Tourism, (aka the Visitor Center). It’s an A shaped building, 14 stories tall. A small restaurant takes up the top floor, the middle floors are office space. The bottom two comprise the Visitor Center.
The first floor has a theater, a couple of food stalls, and several souvenir shops. In one area of the second floor there’s a display of the enormous drums used in the Nebuta festival; in another a banner with a ferocious samurai attacking a huge dragon.
I had great fun in the children’s room. It was quite large, you could walk from one “game” to another. One of my favorites was a large domed table with a screen atop. I didn’t know what it was for until I saw a couple of children playing with it. They poked at the dome; the screen rippled like water and several fish animations appeared swimming around . Next they poked one of the fish. Now a smiling dolphin wearing a sailor hat appeared in the center of the screen. He smiled broadly and said — something in Japanese. In another area a short movie features two geese who leave their lake to explore the world. In the end, they decide their home is the best place of all, and are welcomed back by the bear, the fox, the rabbit and the squirrel. I could figure out that much without knowing any Japanese. But the games were beyond me. It’s hard to play the game when you can’t read the instructions!
The Silver Shadow pulled away from the Aomori pier to farewell dances and waving hands. We will spend tomorrow at sea and are due into Tokyo the next morning. We’ll enjoy a short city tour, then it’s off to Narita, our plane, and back to Portland. We haven’t figured yet whether we’ll experience one long night or two short ones as we give back the hours we lost a week ago. It’s been a fabulous trip; and it will be good to get home. For a while.
Postscript: Who was it that said:’ The best laid schemes of mice and men, gang aft agley”? The Captain had warned us that the seas would become rough as we approached Tokyo, and they certainly did. One of the stations on our room’s TV screen reported winds of over 90km, and this morning we were told they had hit 135km. Spray from the waves was higher than the small balcony on our 5th deck room. This weather completely shut down Tokyo Harbor. It took 4 hours for the Harbor authorities to decide the weather had improved enough for us to enter, and by that time the seas were flat calm. We enjoyed this glimpse of Tokyo - it’s a beautiful city.
We will be among those many passengers missing our flight home, although the Silversea has found us another flight. Our next adventure awaits...
Postcard: Discovering Petropavlovsk
September 25, 2015
[Note: Because of issues regarding "at sea" connectivity, some images below may not load as intended. We will have to await a better connection to complete this one -- but the text is self-explanatory...]
Our story has a happy ending. We were allowed into Russia, and the next morning found us anchored offshore of a very colorful city. On the south end were hillside homes painted the greens, reds and blues I am beginning to associate with buildings in cold climates. Directly ashore, the downtown port area sheltered a variety of working boats, though this was neither the main “trade port” nor where most of the fishing fleet is tied up. A long sandy beach would prove very popular later in the day when the fog lifted. Behind the beach, the town extends back into a valley and into the mountains. Petropavlovsk is ringed by magnificent volcanoes, some of which are active. Earthquakes are commonplace here. The population approaches 200,000 — and this is by far the largest city on the huge and sparsely populated Kamchatka peninsula that is accessible only by ship or air. The vast mainland of Russia to the west is referred to locally as “the Continent”.
I was up early and headed for deck 8 - where early morning coffee is plentiful. Stopping by the card room, I found it full of Russians. Two women were asleep in the comfy armchairs, while 8 others, all in uniform, were going through our passports. When we boarded the Silver Shadow, we’d traded these for a room key - but when we went ashore today we’d need them back.
Our understanding was that the various tour groups were to meet in the theater area, and then would be released to deck three to board the ship’s tenders. But this was a bit confusing - at least for me. Our tour was to begin at 10:30. When we arrived at the theater, the 9:30 tour was still waiting. There were no other groups there.
Feeling a bit worried that we might have been left behind, I hurried down to deck three. It was absolutely jammed. Passengers were crowded into the area just outside the elevator, and a line of only fairly patient people extended up the stairs toward the upper decks. A row of tables had been set up and here we waited while each passport was handed out. This process was painfully slow, but eventually everyone was sorted out, put aboard the shore tenders and all were off on the various tours. Tom and I had opted for the one called the “Highlights of Petropavlovsk”. Others would have taken us well out of town to a Russian Dacha, or to a native Koryak village. Another, longer tour would be using ATV’s to explore the nearby Kamchatka Volcanoes. And still another was visiting a sled dog kennel. Each of these would also include stops in the city itself before returning.
Our buses were waiting pierside, each with English speaking guide. Petropavlovsk is a narrow town stretched immediately along the coast.. It essentially has only two main streets, each being one-way. We found ourselves crossing and recrossing the same locations as we motored between the various planned destinations. While we never actually stopped at the 50’ tall statue of Lenin, we passed it at least three times.
Our first stop was a tomb-like, white monument to the fallen soldiers of WWII. Beautiful from a distance, even if surrounded with cannons, but, as many things here, it was “under repair”. A workman was busily replacing the pavers in the walkway in front of the monument, and the steps leading up to the building were waiting for repairs as well.
Just across the street, buildings were covered with red and gold banners, celebrating something Russian and managing to completely hide the structures behind the banners.
Our next stop was the oldest church In Petropavlovsk. Completely made of wood, it was constructed without using nails. Tom examined the wood railings; they had been intricately notched and fitted. Inside the altar area was beautifully finished in golds, greens and purples.
This decor seems to be the pattern for the Russian Orthodox church. When we later visited a new cathedral on the other side of town, we found similar altar paintings. This newer church also had spectacular ceiling paintings and several equally ornate “stations” scattered through the nave of the church.
Tom got an excellent panorama shot of the ceiling. Interestingly, in the Russian Orthodox church there are no pews. Everyone stands throughout the service, which can last for several hours. No pews equals an unobstructed view of the gorgeous panelling, however - great for pictures.
Next our group went to the City Museum. A charming young woman led us through various exhibits, explaining each in great detail - in Russian! However, our guide’s English was up to the task of translating very efficiently — she runs a school specializing in teaching English to young Russians. She explained that English is necessary if they want good jobs, and soon they will have to pass an English proficiency test in order to graduate. With these credentials, and an absolutely charming demeanor, she was the perfect host for our day’s tour.
The museum was a combination of natural history, native cultures, and the history of this particular area. One corner held a bowhead whale skull, another a display of mammoth tusks; and an entire wall held specimens of the animals once living on this peninsula. Hanging from the ceiling was an exhibit I didn’t recognize at first. Two very large pieces of wood, connected with massive hand forged metal hinges, hung from the ceiling and touched the floor. Although time had badly damaged both pieces, I could tell that the smaller one should have been connected to a solid surface, while the larger one would swing free. Then one of the other folks explained it — the rudder from a centuries old sailing vessel. Quite obvious if only I had looked at the pictures surrounding it!
Next stop was the city overlook, a small park on top of one of the hills behind the city. Our bus slowly climbed the 300 meter hill, hugging the center line so closely I worried we might sideswipe another vehicle. At the top, our best views were toward the surrounding volcano peaks; below dense fog obscured most of the harbor,; and the Silver Shadow was a white blur in the mist. The only recognizable landmark was Lenin’s statue! That foggy condition didn’t last long, however. By the time we got down to the water again, it had cleared away.
The last stop of the day was the Central Market. The traffic situation in Petropavlovsk is challenging at best. The only two main roads through the city are well outfitted with traffic lights. When we got to the area of the Central Market, the driver turned down a small muddy side road, well pocked with pot holes. A couple of them threatened to swallow our entire bus. Not much of a road, but a traffic-free short cut to the Market.
This large shopping area, housed in a large department store type building was clearly ground zero for all shopping in Petropavlovsk I have never seen such a spotless Market. Everything was white tile, and absolutely clean. The vendors behind the counters we also impeccably dressed in similar spotless outfits. And the expansive area devoted to meats and especially seafood had beautifully arrayed products behind spotless glass counters.
Every fish imaginable was for sale here, and, except for salmon, I recognized very few of them. Some were whole fish; others were cleaned and headless. One vendor was selling what appeared to be fish skeletons, no flesh, no skin, only bones. And every vendor had at multiple large containers of caviar, ranging in color from bright orange to deep red. While translating prices from rubles to dollars, and weights from kilos to pounds was a bit like a math quiz, we concluded that even the more expensive offerings of caviar equated to about $10 per pound. And pound of caviar is a LOT of caviar! A poster on the wall epitomized the popularity of this delicacy.
Our tour, originally scheduled to last just over 3 hours, had stretched to well over 4. Arriving back at the ship, we reversed the formalities of departure. First, I handed my key to the ship’s purser, who swiped it to ascertain that I had actually returned. Next, I gave my passport to one of the two young Russian soldiers waiting with outstretched hands. He looked at it carefully, then looked at me. I don’t much resemble that picture any longer, and was glad when it appeared I had passed that part of the test. Then, without hint of a smile, he asked, “What is your name”? It occurred to me that perhaps a “cute” answer might not be appropriate at that time, so I said, “Stephanie”, retrieved my passport and turned it back in to ship personnel. In fairness the Russian officers were efficient but always professional. Home again.
We had a fascinating tour of Petropavlovsk. It’s an area of contrasts; we saw some beautiful architecture in the churches; on the other hand, the apartments where the average Russian lives could use some paint and repair. While we didn’t have much opportunity for direct contact with the locals, from what we could observe they were polite and friendly — and we’d be happy to have the chance to spend more time here that had been possible.
That evening, as the Silver Shadow sailed out of the Bay, we noticed that there were very few lights on in those buildings. The main lights were to be found in the commercial areas and the headlights of the cars on the road. An unknown medium sized boat seemed to be following us out of the Bay, but it turned and headed back after a mile or so.
Now we’ll have a couple of “at sea” days, then dock in Kushiro, Japan for the start of the next leg of our trip.
Postcard: At Sea
September 25, 2015
The Silver Shadow rounded the breakwater in Dutch Harbor, and I could hear the anchor chain going out. We had expected to be tied up dockside, not anchored out in the bay, but the combination of a construction barge and the Coast Guard had taken our landing spot at the town dock. Our only other choice was to anchor.
But that was not as easy as it might have been. An extremely windy morning, (88 Km/h), and an uncooperative harbor bottom equalled an anchor that would not hold. And after several tries the Captain concluded he’d have to abandon the effort. The uncooperative anchor was pulled up and we headed back to sea — toward our next stop, Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka peninsula in far eastern Russia (aka Siberia).
For the next three days, we’d steadily steam east, crossing the International Date Line, and lose September 23, 2015 in the process. Our calendars would go from Tuesday, Sept. 22 directly to Thursday, Sept.24.
Three days at sea. The Silver Shadow is a beautiful ship, some 600 feet long. It has a guest capacity of only 382 persons, with a crew nearly matching that number. It has a fitness center, steam and sauna facilities and a jogging track. There’s a large theater area for lectures and, in the evenings, for shows. But three days? What does one do for three days out of all contact with land? Might this give new meaning to the term “at sea”?
I needn't have been concerned. We’ve now discovered there is so much to do that we’ve barely begun to sample it all. The lecture series has been superb. Because we are traveling as part of a university alumni consortium we get the advantage of having in-depth educational seminars from Cal, Harvard and the Smithsonian — in addition to the presentations offered by ship’s staff lecturers. Our first “university group” seminar was about Alaska itself: its people, history, culture, economics and politics. It was led by Fran Ulmer, former Mayor of Juneau, who has lived in Alaska for over 40 years. Her resume is impressive. In addition to being Mayor, she served as Alaska’s Lt. Governor, and as chancellor of the University of Alaska - Anchorage. Currently she is chair of the Arctic Research Commission. Wearing this latter hat, her second lecture was on the warming of the Arctic and its ramifications for both the communities in Alaska and the rest of the world. She had the unusual gift of dealing with several controversial topics in a completely and factual way — quite refreshing in our world of polarized views.
Other presentations have been equally outstanding. We learned about the Bering land bridge and the Ring of Fire. Cal professor Alex Horne offered up a short course he entitled “Oceanography 101”. He described the the varying characteristics of oceans, and the impact of different temperature levels, depths, nutrient levels, intermixing, etc.; and how the water color reflects the amount of algae (read “food”) contained within. I would have thought that the bluer the water, the more nutritious it would be. But that is not correct. Those seas which appear green or grey have far more nutrients for the resident fish and mammals. Most importantly he described the potential impacts that current changes imply in terms of social, economic, and even political outcomes. Again, all this in a framework of factual and objective data — and recognizing the need for additional research in several key areas.
Every day there is a talk on upcoming ports we will visit. There are several tours planned in each city, ranging from short town tours to more extensive area one. Happily we’ve also been given substantial information about how to see each stop “on our own”. In some locations we’ll be docked in easy walking distance of the downtown area and several of the key points of interest. Where possible, the ship provides a shuttle service to a central location, such as we experienced during our stop in Kodiak. Each destination we will visit has been discussed, with pictures as well as commentary, and we have a good idea of what we will see and where to go.
All these lectures have been held in the ship’s theater. However, there are some “just for fun” happenings there as well. I watched a cooking competition between two budding young chefs. The stage was set up as a kitchen, with a cooktop and food preparation area, knives and cutting boards. To begin, each chef was given a black box. They opened their boxes and described the contents - one had a beef filet and shrimp, the other salmon and pork. Each chef was to create two different meals. They had to cook quickly, because 4 volunteers from the audience were sitting around a table waiting to taste their creations. After tasting the food, the volunteers critiqued each chef.
Returning from lunch one afternoon, I passed the open door of the theater. On the movie screen, the three tenors (Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carerras) were singing. “When You Walk through a Storm”, from Roger & Hammerstein’s “Carousel”. That was followed by the songs from “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific”, interspersed with narrative from Silversea guest lecturer Dr. Herb Keyser. I enjoyed his presentation so much that I immediately pencilled in the next, about Gene Kelly, and wouldn’t miss the one on Judy Garland.
There are other activities in other areas. Bridge seems to be practically non-stop. There are two women who enjoy jigsaw puzzles, and are speed experts at solving them. As soon as they finish one, they open another and begin laying out the pieces.
Every afternoon, the cruise activity director gives dance lessons - everything from line dancing to rock ’n roll to samba. Each morning, contestants for the daily Trivial Pursuit game pick up their quiz sheets, and around 5 PM gather to hear the answers. And each evening there is professional entertainment offered up by the ship’s own London-based troupe of singers, a very gifted concern pianist, and even a magician.
Keeping in shape is always difficult when it seems it’s usually time to eat. In addition to a weight room, spa and sauna, there are several complementary fitness classes one can sign up for daily, ranging from aerobics to pilates and more. And the jogging track (9 laps to a mile) gets its share of attention. The first day was particularly cold and windy; even so, there are always some diehard walkers. We’ve been among them.
This evening, we are supposed to be in Petropavlovsk, Russia. We were due to anchor around 6:30 PM. We had filled out our Russian Immigration forms, parts A & B, and were looking forward to seeing the city. We still are. However, another change of plans looms on the horizon. About 30 minutes ago, the Captain came on the loudspeaker to announce that the Russian Navy is holding some sort of exercises, and our ship has been told, in effect, to “turn away”. According to the Captain, it is all very secretive and “cold war-ish!” Now, we’re waiting to see if we will be able to land at all in Russia. Time will tell…
POSTCARD: Transpacific Voyage 2015 — Getting Underway
September 18. 2015
Tom and I have taken several trips with college alumni groups, most notably with the Cal/ Berkeley Golden Bears and the Texas A&M Aggies. We’ve visited Australia and New Zealand and gone to Tahiti. We’ve gone on enough “excursions” that trip brochures now make up a good portion of our mail, and most of these get thrown away. But this trip sounded different, and most intriguing. Titled “Anchorage to Japan; a Trans-Pacific Journey”, it offered a 15 day trip through areas many have never visited. First, we’d fly to Anchorage, Alaska. Then overnight at the iconic Captain Cook Hotel, and take a 4 hour train trip through the Chugach forest south to Seward. There we’d board the Silver Shadow, one of the ships in the Silversea line. From Seward, we’d head south west into the Aleutian Islands, with stops Kodiak and Dutch Harbor. Beyond, a couple of days at sea would bring us to Petroplavosk, a city on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Then our ship would travel south to Japan, stopping in the northern cities of Kushiro, Hakodate and Aomori before docking in Tokyo. From Tokyo, we’d fly back to Portland.
When I first read the brochure, one of my first thoughts was, “Silversea is going to have trouble filling all the cabins on this trip. How many people want to traverse the North Pacific, with some of the days spent entirely at sea? Or visit Siberia? (Petroplavosk is technically in Siberia). We should have no trouble getting a stateroom.” I was absolutely wrong. The trip had sold out quickly nearly a half year before the planned departure, and we were relegated to the waitlist!
But a few months later, we received word that we could be among those taking this unusual trip. We filled out all the necessary paperwork, checked the dates on our passports, and I began thinking about what to pack. We started telling friends that we’d be “going to Siberia”. And Tom could even add, (tongue somewhat in cheek), that after his cold war experiences in the intelligence service, he hoped we’d make it back.
After an uneventful flight from Portland to Anchorage, the program read, “afternoon at leisure”. This meant for me a short walk to see some of the interesting art and curio shops around the Captain Cook. Then I joined Tom to explore some of the old restored buildings in the historic part of town, and walked a short way along the Tony Knowles Coastal trail. This portion of the eleven mile long trail follows the shoreline of scenic Cook Inlet. The tide was out — grass and mud flats extended far out into the bay. Interesting to think that by later this evening, the water would extend almost back to the trail - a 30 vertical foot tidal swing.
The Tony Knowles is an all season trail. In summer, it can be crowded with runners, hikers, bikers, and dog walkers. In the winter, its used for skijoring - a cross between dog sledding and cross country skiing Simply tie your favorite family pet to a sled, and get pulled along - (it assumes you have a pet capable of this feat) Today, we saw a new use for the trail. A group of tourists, complete with guide, came by on Segways! What an interesting way to see and learn about the city!
Traveling with a University group is a very good way to make new friends. It really doesn't matter when you graduated, or where you now live. You still have some background in common — those years at the same University. As a consequence sometimes you meet people you’ve met on previous trips. Like this morning. Tom is the poster child for wearing his name badge, and he often convinces me to wear mine as well. You tend to notice those with “your” school tags. A woman from Cal, having breakfast with some Illinois alums, came over and introduced herself. A bit later, a couple, also with Cal badges, came into the breakfast area. This time, the woman came directly over and looked at me. “You look very familiar”, she said. “I’m sure we've met before - probably on another Cal trip”. And she was right. They had been on the Galapagos Islands trip in November of 2010, when we’d celebrated our 50th with our family!
We were in Anchorage, and our ship was docked in Seward, some 120 miles to the southwest. Our program had devised an interesting way to cover those miles — via the Alaska Railroad. We spent an enjoyable 4 hours traveling first along the shores of Cook Inlet, and then through the Chugach National Forest. We passed the tundra-like bogs along Turnagin Arm, then up through pine forests to pass within close sight of several glaciers not visible other than from this rail route. We arrived at the dock in Seward just in time to check in and be shown our stateroom. Thankfully our luggage had arrived ahead earlier as promised, and was waiting for us in our cabin when we arrived.
Kodiak Island is a place we’ve always wanted to visit. About 15 years ago, we had our RV at the Seward Waterfront Park, when we decided, just on a whim, to take the Alaska State ferry to Kodiak. We weren't going to take the RV, but just travel as foot passengers. It’s about a 10 hour ferry trip from Seward to Kodiak. So we thought we could go over one day, spend the night, and return on the next ferry.
It was late summer, but the weather had turned unseasonably stormy in the Gulf of Alaska, and the ferry was running about 14 hours late. Arrival and departure plans were completely unpredictable, so we decided against our whimsical visit. But this time we’d have a new chance to visit Kodiak.
The Silver Shadow docked promptly at 8 AM, and the first of several tours left for town. However, town was only about a mile away, and we’ve joined the ranks of the “count your daily steps” group. Also, there was the advantage of being able to stop wherever we wished, and take pictures of whatever we noticed. And there was so much to notice!
We walked past rows of refrigerator trucks, most with their compressors running parked outside several fish packing houses. We later learned they were being loaded with frozen fish and readied for shipment to Anchorage, to the “lower 48” and to Asia. We further noticed the small homes perched above the commercial boat harbor. They were painted in the same blue, green and pink hues that we’d seen last year when visiting Greenland.
The local high school arts class had fabricated a huge blue and white salmon, made completely from trash picked up on local beaches.
“Pickled Willy’s” is a neighborhood store specializing in shipping salmon.
And in the window of a beauty salon, “Keep Calm and Do Your Hair”!
We continued on past the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church.
Unfortunately closed due to recent vandalism, and visited the Alutiiq Museum. Here artwork and displays show the culture and history of these Native people - their language, carvings and intricately woven basketry. At the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, I enjoyed the Kodiak (“Grizzly”) Bear dioramas — one of a cave with a sleeping mama bear and two small cubs; another of the “Grizzly Grocery store”: In separate, grocery style bins were samples of the various berries, seaweeds and fish that these bears get to feast upon.
Now we’re underway to Dutch Harbor. Still in Alaska, it is some 800 miles southwest from Kodiak, and the Silver Shadow won’t dock until Sunday, Sept. 20. Internet connections are becoming more and more spotty, so other installments of Postcards will be somewhat “hit-or-miss”. Off we go!
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