ALASKA, 2001

Cruise West

Cruise West Tour 10C - Northbound SHELTERED SEAS plus Prince William Sound, cruising on the SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY for three nights, then Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks. I really enjoyed the trip, and particularly the CruiseWest boat crew. Although I didn't realize it at the time, even 10 years later, THIS IS MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE TRIP!

Day 1, Friday, May 18 Houston to Ketchikan.
Up at 3:30 (12:30AM Ketchikan time) to get loaded up and to the airport; fortunately no problems.

1Northwest Airlines #1271Houston-Minneapolis 7:35AM - 10:21AM2:46
2Northwest Airlines #945Minneapolis-Seattle11:25AM - 1:09PM3:44
3Alaska Airlines #67Seattle-Ketchikan2:49PM - 3:44PM

First (of 3) flights is Northwest Airlines flight to Minneapolis. It would have gotten off on time, except that some passenger in First Class "just couldn't wait" and had to "potty." So we all waited for an extra 10 minutes past 'push back time' while she was on the pot. Not much to see until Minneapolis area - nice views of the many lakes, ponds, etc in the area both during arrival and later departure. The second flight was to Seattle. Push back was only a little late then the long wait in line to take off. Oops, when we got to the head of the line and were all set on the runway to take off - sorry Charlie, you didn't take a 'take-off number.' Go back to the end of the line. So we taxi slowly down the take-off runway until there's a crossover to the taxi-way and go from first in line to 15th. After 14 take-offs (and about 10 landings), we finally get our chance. Either the A/C is broken or they have it set on heat - not a pleasant flight. Did get to see some scenery of the Rockies before the clouds closed in, and just a bit of Seattle. During some of our taxiing, I did see a Russian AeroFlot airliner docked at one of the passenger gates. The third flight, to Ketchikan, was supposed to be off at 2:49, but we were missing the flight attendants - seems their plane hadn't made it in yet, so its yet another delay. Much later we finally take off into the clouds. There's nothing at all to see except clouds all the way to the landing in Ketchikan 2 hours later. At least the Cruise West people were on the ball and we had an easy transfer to the hotel. The airport is on one island (Gravina Island); Ketchikan (population about 14,000) is on another (Revillagigedo Island) so we had to take a ferry across (5 minute cruise).

The hotel (Westcoast Cape Fox) is very nice. It's up on a hill with a nice view (through the rain and clouds). There's even a (free) cog tram down the very steep hill to the tourist-trap area and "downtown" Ketchikan. One of the big cruise liners is still in port, but leaves shortly thereafter. Reported that there were three cruise ships (locals call them 'blights on the landscape') in yesterday - total of over 6000 passengers in a small city at one time. Wall-to-wall people jam. Ketchikan isn't called "Rain City" for nothing. It has an average of about 170" of rain a year. It's up to 60" as of now, and … it's raining. (The record is a bit over 220") Still quite a bit of drizzle and light rain, and it's only 40 degrees, so I limit my window shopping somewhat, get a sandwich for supper, then back to the hotel. It's been a long day (12:30 AM - 8 PM) so to bed early. (BL)

The map doesn't show the Prince William Sound part, but that's just a short trip down from Anchorage, then a three day cruise in PWS. It also shows going up to Skagway and Glacier Bay, but that was an addition in later years. Stops in Hyder and Metlakatla were dependent on the time of year (bear watching).

Day 2, Saturday, May 19 Misty Fjords
Up at 5 AM (sleeping late by Houston time - there it's 8 AM). Breakfast at 6AM in the hotel's Shaa-Hit room with guest speaker Joe Williams (native Tlingit Indian) who gives a really interesting presentation (He's Fantastic!!!!!) about the culture of the Tlingit Indians - both past and present. He's a great speaker and has us laughing lots, even as he teaches us about their culture and ways. Then at 7:40 the bus leaves (ah, oops, have to wait on some tardy folks, so we get away a bit late) to take us to the dock; board the Sheltered Seas at 7:45 (or later!!) and off for the day of cruising. It's a "small" boat - only 90' long - capacity is 70; we have 58 on board (plus 8 crew). This is a SUPER nice deal!!!!

We head off south around Revillagigedo Island to the Misty Fjords National Monument, a land of soaring cliffs often (always) filled with misty clouds trapped by the peaks above. As we enter the National Monument, one of the park service rangers comes out to the boat in her kayak and joins us as on-board lecturer for the trip. This is really a nice touch. Misty Fjords is a sanctuary of primeval fjords and abundant wildlife (birds, mountain goat, bear, porpoises). Glacially carved granite walls rise dramatically from the sea to 3000 feet, thin clouds drift along the ridge lines and waterfalls tumble down the rock faces (at one point the captain puts the bow right up by the rock face so the waterfall almost hits right on deck). It's quite a mix - granite one place; thick forest along the shore in other places. Lunch on board is included (potato soup, big sandwich, etc). We get back to Ketchikan about 3:45. Again there are three big cruise ships docked here, but fortunately since it's fairly late, most of the tourist mob has headed back onboard.

Next is a guided walk (Ketchikan Native Walk) with Joe's son, Rick (nice, but not with Joe's personality and style). He guides us through the town pointing out highlights, telling some of the city history, takes us through the tourist trap area of Creek Street, then back to the hotel via "Married Man's Walk". After that we have free admission to the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, a beautiful museum offering a high-tech audiovisual show "Mystical Southeast Alaska" as well as displays of the region's wildlife, ecosystems, native heritage, and other magnificent natural wonders.

Supper on our own - local café for me. Ketchikan is nice, but definitely is oriented to the tourist trade - imagine a town of 14000 with 6000 cruise ship passengers on shore at one time. Not for me. (BL)

Day 3, Sunday, May 20 Wrangell and Petersburg
Luggage has to be set outside the room by 6AM (yes, 6) so up early again. However no "early" breakfast today although the company has arranged a nice semi-continental breakfast setup at 5:30 for early risers. The bus doesn't leave for the dock until 7:20 (stomach growling a bit) and the boat leaves at 7:40. Then, and only then, can we get breakfast when we are on board the boat. Winding wilderness waterways lead north from Ketchikan. Along the way we slow or stop to see porpoises (we circle around to see if they will ride our bow wave - sometimes they do), Steller Sea Lions (pull in to about 100' away and drift with the current), humpback whales (stop and circle for almost 20 minutes to watch them), bears (there's an almost constant watch for bears on shore), check a crab trap and pick up some live crabs, and lots of different kinds of birds. We also see some black-tailed deer. Lots of islands, mostly heavily forested as we head north. Lunch is on board - chicken chili, salad, pecan pie. Very good. We get to Wrangell (population about 2300) near the mouth of the Stikine River, about 1:30. This is a fishing and timber town. We take a walking tour through town (on their one street) to get the feel for life in a "true" Alaskan city. Along the way we see numerous (?) historic points of interest including the Kiksadi Totem Park. This independent-minded community was host to three gold rushes and was the only town in Alaska to have existed under British, Russian, and American flags. Prior to these inhabitants, Tlingits dwelled on the island. Enjoy an included tour to Chief Shakes Tribal House, surrounded by totem poles made in the Wrangell area. I like Wrangell.

There are LOTS of eagles feeding off fish in the nearby boat harbor. There is a local mine for garnets (non-gem-quality) and the original owners have deeded ownership to the children of the town. Some of the children are on the dock to sell samples to the visitors. It's a neat little town; nice people, but a bit too small for me to want to live here. Richard (Cruise Director/Naturalist) does a presentation on whales. He's been interested in them for some time and done quite a bit of studies on them.

There are three possible weather forecasts for the area: 1) it will be raining within the hour; 2) it will be raining within 30 minutes; 3) it is raining. Forecast 3 holds for the rest of the trip to Petersburg. However, on the way we have our supper on board - our choice of chicken or baked Halibut - another excellent dinner with 'fresh' vegetables, hot rolls, and cheesecake for desert.

At dinner, Richard asks for those whose travel agents had sent "Bon Voyage" gifts to, please give him the vouchers that came along with them.

When we get to Petersburg (population about 4500) about 7, we have a brief 25-minute tour around the town 'loop'. On my bus, the driver/guide, Vicky, is an absolute delight. I must remember to mention her in the trip commentary at the end. She has a fantastic personality - sort of the "Miss Congeniality" award. The hotel, the Tides, has been written up as "real Alaska, comfortable, but plain." OK, it's not the Hilton, but deserves a much better description than in the brochure. The staff there is really nice and friendly. It turns out to be my favorite hotel on the whole trip. I see it as very highly recommended. Basic, but nice, clean, friendly, and we'll have a great breakfast the next two mornings. I *really* like Petersburg already. (BLD)

Day 4, Monday, May 21 LeConte Bay and Sawyer Glaciers
Up at about 5:30 for breakfast (pancakes, corn-beef-hash, Norwegian specialties, etc.) in the hotel at 6:30. Weather forecast number 3. Then it's off to the boat at 7:40 for today's cruise to LeConte Bay and the LeConte Glacier. The fjord is carved into the rugged coastal mountains by the glacier. The bay is fairly heavily choked with bergs, bitty bergs, and bergy bits. It takes quite a while for the Captain to find a way to force the boat through the mess to get us up to about 1/2 miles (less?) from the face of the glacier. Along the way, we see hundreds of harbour seals (pregnant females). There are also a couple of mountain goats spotted, and again, lots of eagles. LeConte Glacier is Alaska's southernmost tidewater glacier and produces grand iceberg displays. Spectacular "calvings" occur frequently when gigantic sections of the glacier's front split off and crash into the iceberg-filled fjord, accompanied by a thunderous boom. This spectacle is a truly magnificent display of Alaska's natural forces at work. We don't see really massive 'calving' from the glacier face, but there is an almost constant fragmentation with small bits dropping into the bay. Lunch is served on board - shrimp salad sandwiches, seafood tomato soup, etc. Nice. Then its time to force our way back out to open water. It's taken so long both ways that we are about an hour late (3 PM) getting back to Petersburg.

Next is an optional nature walk guided tour - first to the canopied rain forest (Tongass National Forest area) then to the muskeg bogs area to get an idea of the two major ecologies present on the island. It's really an interesting tour. The very nice lady who led the tour has just recently started it. She acknowledges: "Don't ask hard questions, I'm still learning things myself." After our return to town, we have a brief time to rest, then a very special Norwegian smorgasbord dinner at the Sons of Norway civic hall. Along with musical entertainment, it's "all you can eat" style … so I did. . After that, we have a demonstration of Norwegian dances by the young (school age) students costumed dance group, the Leikarring Dancers. They are truly fantastic.

If that isn't enough, special arrangements have been made with the Raven's Nest Art Gallery and the Pangea Tribal Design center to stay open especially for cruise participants. We get to meet more of the so-very-nice citizens of Petersburg. So we're very late getting back to the hotel ... and it's early up again tomorrow. I've really enjoyed Petersburg. In fact, I think I'm "in love" with Petersburg. I'm really looking forward to a repeat visit in a couple of years. We just missed (previous week) their annual Norwegian Festival (Norwegian 'Renaissance Festival'??) and maybe I'll try to schedule a repeat trip on the 'Sheltered Seas' to coincide with the fun. If I were a few years younger and if they had more medical facilities (yes, they do have a doctor and a full hospital), I think I'd like to live here for a while. Definitely a special place!! It quickly becomes my favorite place in Alaska, with so many very nice and interesting people. .

In the next couple of years, I DO want to come back. Maybe I'll get to see Vicky as well as the other great people, and see another super performance by the Leikarring Dancers. (BLD)

Day 5, Tuesday, May 22 Frederick Sound to Juneau
Its bags out at 6:30 and again we have another of Gloria's excellent breakfasts at the hotel before we head off to the boat for today's cruise. We get a raucous sendoff from the eagles as we leave Petersburg. The first part of the day is just … head north. Not much to see and since it's more open water than before, it's a bit rougher, but not at all bad. We see some more humpback whales and the captain stops several times. At one stop, we see both whales broaching, and also tail slaps on the water. Lots of action. There are also more sea lions, and lots of barge traffic, particularly as we get a bit more north….and some cruise ships way to **** out away from the shore - barely visible by eye; only recognizable in binoculars. I wonder if they can even see the shore. (Note to self: don't EVER take a big cruise ship up the inside passage if I want to see anything; maybe they are ok if we want a nonstop social gathering, but not for sightseeing. Also the passenger list can be anywhere from 1800 to 2200, and supposedly there will be a 2500 passenger ship soon.) Lunch is manacotti, salad, garlic toast, and oatmeal raisin cookies. More good food. Then we head into Tracy Arm, where sheer granite cliffs soar to meet the sky and verdant forests greet the eye in unforgettable vistas. Many experienced travelers regard Tracy Arm as the most beautiful place in all of Alaska. Then on to see the Sawyer Glacier (we get within about 200 yards or so). No major 'calving' until just as we turn away and start back. On thet way, we pull right up to shore with the bow completely under one of the waterfalls - one of the crew fills a water pitcher directly from the falling water. Those of us on the bow to take pictures get soaked but it's all fun. We see more wildlife - mountain goats, bears, and more seals (including a couple of new 'pups').

Dinner (our second on board) is a choice of baked salmon or prime rib. Excellent dinner. Finally, about 7PM, we get into Juneau and are driven on a short swing along the tourist-trap street, then back to the hotel (Goldbelt - very nice) … which is right across the street from the docks. The crew of the SHELTERED SEAS have been really fantastic. On a 5-star scale, I'd rate the cruise as at least 6-star. Really great. The 'shore support personnel' have also been really friendly and helpful: at least 7-stars to them as well. (BLD)

Day 6, Wednesday, May 23 Juneau, and to Anchorage
First on the agenda is breakfast (find our own - maybe McDonalds?). Then at 9, a "Historic Area Walk" 'Walk back in time through historic downtown Juneau. We "meet" the characters and hear the stories of life in the 1880s when Juneau came alive with the cry of 'gold'. More than 200 buildings are original constructions from the turn of the century. There's also a stop to go in and see the 100 year old Russian Orthodox Church, Starr Hill, and the Governor's Mansion.' Nice walk. I had planned on the "Pilot's Choice" helicopter flight-seeing, but the weather isn't all that good (solid low overcast and rain - anywhere from steady drizzle to full rain), so I pass. Maybe in Anchorage in a few days … There's also a voucher supplied to see the Alaska State Museum to see Alaska's natural and cultural legacy under one roof. Highlights include masterworks of northwest coast native art, and dioramas and displays of Alaska's diverse Native, Russian, and American history. This is a super museum with some superb exhibits. There's still time to wander around and window shop since the plane to Anchorage isn't until 7PM - have to be back at the hotel at 5:30, but that's no problem. All the sucker-bait shops are just a couple of blocks from the hotel. Overall, Juneau doesn't impress me that much. I'd prefer Ketchikan, or even Wrangell.

4Alaska Airlines #67Juneau-Anchorage7:08PM - 8:44PM1:36

This fourth flight (Alaska Airlines again, in fact a continuation of the flight I came up from Seattle on) scheduled to get into Anchorage about 8:45 but both departure and arrival are about 15 minutes delayed so it's 'late' to the hotel (some of the delay due to a slowdown as a moose is crossing the highway on our way into town), 10PM, and luggage doesn't get delivered until a bit after 11. Mostly cloud cover the entire way, but just before the descent into Anchorage, there are a few clear views of totally snow covered peaks. At the airport and hotel, at least the CruiseWest people are here and ready to help.

The hotel here is the Anchorage Sheraton - Sheraton?? Bah, humbug. I'd rather an Alaskan hotel than just another modern 'what city am I in' type. (And I have to stay here again in a few days when we get back from Prince William Sound. Yuck! And Bah, Humbug!!! Minus 3-stars.

Day 7, Thursday, May 24 To Whittier and on board
Have to find my own breakfast again, then later luggage out at 8:30, down to the Cruise West desk at 9:30 for the transfer to the train station for a ride to Whittier The train leaves at 10AM so no sightseeing time in Anchorage. There's a very nice 'tour guide' on the train (Niccole - lots of personality) who works for the railroad, not CruiseWest. She'll be a senior in high school next year; this is her summer job (2nd day on the job this year). We do get a brief bus ride through 'beautiful downtown Whittier' with a brief discussion of life in this small (!!!) town built as a secret port in WW II. The locals call themselves "Whidiots". (I'll take Whittier over Anchorage for 'interest'.) Lunch was on our own on the train - so being pre-warned, I bought some snacks yesterday in Juneau. Whittier is an interesting place: primarily (99%) rail and ferry terminal. 85% of the people live in one building - refurbished WWII married-mens barracks - now condominiums. The rest live in refurbished regular barracks - now apartments. Its another interesting place, but not one to recommend as a vacation spot - unless we want a place to camp between fishing trips.

Board the SPIRIT OF GLACIER BAY at 2PM (or somewhere about then) for a 3:15 departure (or somewhere about then). It's a bit longer (125') and the capacity is 50; we have 31 on board + about 20 crew members. After that it's "cruise in areas selected by the Captain for the best seasonal wildlife or glacier viewing." Actually there is a planned route (as expected), but the Captain can, and will, vary it to meet changing conditions.

Dinner (pork loin, sweet onion soup, cheesecake, etc.) is provided on board. It's a very good dinner. The cabin (a 'single') is very small (5x11' including the 'facilities'), but quite adequate. The brochure says 'the beds vary from standard.' Yes, they do. They are more like wide shelves, but they are long enough and the padding (can't call them mattresses) is sufficient so that we don't feel the shelving under us. There's a nice view out the window to see the scenery and the cabin is right by the exit to the outer top deck for even better sight-seeing. The enclosed viewing lounge is one deck down, also the dining room on the same deck. The rest of the top deck cabins open onto the open deck - not that good if the weather isn't. Wildlife for the day: sea otters, humpback whales, porpoises, Dall sheep (on the train ride down). We've seen quite a range of wildlife so far and more coming. Molly (Cruise Director/Naturalist) does a presentation on glaciers - the various types, how they are formed; moraines, etc. The ship will cruise late in the evening (it's not dark until about 11), then anchor for the night (standard procedure). The anchor is actually dropped at about 12:30 AM. (D)

Day 8, Friday, May 25 Cruising
Wake up call scheduled for 7, but I'm up way earlier than that (it's full light by 4). Up anchor at 6:30 then cruise down near the face of Harvard glacier in College Fjord. Today we explore the secluded waterways of Prince William Sound, a glacial wonderland most visitors to Alaska never see since it's narrow and shallow in some areas. We also check out Barry Arm watching for sea otters as we make our way to Esther Passage, then cruise Prince William Sound's eastern arm. At one point, Susie, a local oyster farmer comes aboard and tells us about her oyster farm nearby. From her stories, the early years were very 'interesting.' Many challenges. Wildlife: eagles, a couple of sea lions playing, rafts of sea otters - some swimming on their backs with pups riding on their stomachs -, about 9 mountain goats grazing on the cliff face, several harbour seals, and of course more porpoises. Dinner is a choice between halibut and lemon chicken strips. Molly does a presentation on the Exxon Valdez oil spill after dinner. Same ship routine tonight (anchor at midnight). They anchor up just short of Valdez so we can cruise in there just after breakfast tomorrow morning. (BLD)

Day 9, Saturday, May 26 Cruising, Valdez
Up anchor again at 6:30 AM. This morning we cruise by the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal as we approach Valdez at 8AM. It's good to get off the boat for a while. There's a motor-coach tour to see the highlights including views of the surrounding imposingly steep Wrangell Mountains. Admission is included to the Valdez Museum. I'm also booked for a helicopter glacier and sightseeing flight. It turns out an absolutely beautiful day so it's a great flight. We land in front of the Shoup Glacier for about 20 minutes of walking around and pictures, them back to Valdez (saw a bear along the way). I even found a (real) Mexican restaurant in town - so later skipped lunch on the boat. We are supposed to leave Valdez at 1PM, but it's a bit late. I like the boots (insulated for snow) that they supply (loan) us. Then we head out to sail in Columbia Bay and spend time among icebergs from the Columbia Glacier. No photos from here - got better ones, I hope, from the copter. Watch for seals, birds, and sea otters. One seal swims along side the boat - kept looking up at us as if begging for handouts. There's a farewell dinner (tenderloin of beef) but it gets interrupted just before the chocolate mousse when we spot an orca - everyone rushes over to the side and/or on deck, to watch as the captain slows and turns the boat around for more chances to watch. The scenery on the Prince William Sound trip is more spectacular - more rugged mountains and lots more glaciers and snow, but I think I like the Sheltered Seas part better somehow - maybe because we have more chance to get off the boat and walk around and see something - plus more time to meet the people of Alaska. Late run tonight - didn't anchor until 2AM. (BLD)

Day 10, Sunday, May 27 Back to Whittier and Anchorage
I think four days and three nights is enough, so it's nice to wake up on our last day on the boat. It's another beautiful day, though quite windy. Wake up in the heart of one of Prince William Sound's most scenic glacial fjords, Blackstone Bay. I'm up early as usual, then it's up anchor at 6:30 - makes a good alarm clock / wake-up call! Breakfast, and bags out at 7:30. It's only a short cruise back into Whittier about 9AM (after a stop at a Kittiwake rookery just outside Whittier - approximately 10,000 birds) then a 2-hour bus ride back to Anchorage. We have to wait at the tunnel (both 2-way vehicle AND train alternating in a one-lane tunnel 2.5 miles long). We see Beluga whales in the Turnagain Arm on the way to Anchorage. Also, on the way, since the weather is very good, we catch a brief glimpse of Mt McKinley peak while we're still on the southern outskirts of Anchorage. When we get back, there's a chance to visit the Alaska Art and History Museum (included side trip) - duh. We are told we could get lunch at the museum, (oops, not on Sundays) then back to that blasted Sheraton about 2:30 - well, for me, I left early. This has been the (for me) most boring museum stop of the trip. The rest of the day is on our own, so window shopping down at the Mall (yes, IT's open of course) and meals at the fast-food court there.(B)

Day 11, Monday, May 28 Anchorage, Native Heritage Center
Breakfast on snacks in my room. Then there's an Anchorage sightseeing tour at 8 AM. Admission to the Alaska Native Heritage Center is included - way, super, ultra, much better than yesterday's museum - could very easily have stayed here all day. (Comments about CruiseWest's timing of this excursion censored - and lots of agreement on that from other tour members. I definitely have something to say about this when I do my trip comments for CruiseWest at the end of the trip, as well as making comments to the local staff at the hotel - very politely since the local CW staff is so very nice. Special recognition to the local supervisor, Carina.) Back to the hotel about 11:10. Lunch on our own - 'fast food' for me. The afternoon is free - but it's Memorial Day so most everything is closed - except that Mall. That makes two 'lost' afternoons. Sure wish I was still out at the Native Cultural Center. I've already done a 'flightseeing' excursion, and there's nothing else significant offered. Tonight is an included "Seafood and Prime Rib Buffet" in the Ptarmigan Lounge in the hotel. Good, but not fantastic.

With the exception of the Native Center, I think Anchorage is a 'bum deal.' In my opinion, Sunday and Monday could have been combined (unless they had extended the NCC visit): Sunday afternoon the city tour and Native Museum, Sunday evening the "Seafood Buffet", then off to Denali the next morning. It would have saved lots of money as well as the time (as well as one less night in that hotel). Hopefully tomorrow will be more interesting / rewarding. (D)

Day 12, Tuesday, May 29 Train to Denali
7:30 AM - luggage ready. Included Continental breakfast and a Denali National Park orientation to go along with it. Ho-hum. The coach leaves at 8:45 to take us to the train station in Talkeetna, north of Anchorage. We stop along the way (pull out on the left side of the highway) for a view of Denali. It turns out that this is the only view we get for the whole trip. At 11:15 we're supposed to board the actual train, the "Midnight Sun Express" and our dome car for the 5-hour trip to Denali. "Sweeping views are everywhere as we cross Hurricane Gulch and Broad Pass." (At least that's what it says in the brochure! ???? Where????) Lunch is not included. It's supposed to be a great trip, but in my opinion, ranks only slightly above that worthless Alaska Art Museum stop in Anchorage. It would have been much better to take the bus the whole way (much faster) so we would get there before the cloud cover moves in. Total wildlife seen - brief glimpse of one bear. More Bah, humbug! We're scheduled into Denali about 4:30 (turns out to be a bit after 5:15) and check into the McKinley Village Lodge. The Village itself is just outside the park, but there's a complimentary shuttle on a regular schedule to take us to the tourist-trap area and back if we should ever have any time to do so. In my opinion, the train ride is a waste of time.

There's barely time to find our rooms then get to an included "Wine and Cheese" reception at 5:45 in the Village, and along with that, a nice talk by a Denali Foundation naturalist on the wildlife and the ecology of the area. We have to cut that a bit short (no question/answer session) since a bunch of us are signed up for Jeff King's (3-time Iditarod winner) "Husky Homestead" tour - where he raises and trains his sled dogs. This turns out to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable options on the whole (this third part) trip. Finally back to the hotel for a late (9:45) bit of supper (purloined snacks, etc. - I'm too cheap to buy in the hotel restaurant.) The room is nice - the building is right on the riverside, and my room faces out over the river and toward some low mountains. To bed about 11:15, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the river outside my (open) window. (Unlike that hotel in Novgorod, Russia, this motel does have screens so it's safe to open the windows - the mosquitoes stay outside.) (D)

Day 13, Wednesday, May 30 Denali Wildlife Tour
Wake up early (4:15), and see the overcast. Not good. Start with the Tundra Buffet breakfast (5 AM) at the McKinley Village Lodge. It's excellent - except for the un-leaded orange juice. The only thing orange about it is the color. Then Denali Park's Tundra Wildlife Tour this morning (leaves at 6:20), going about 53 miles into the park (just recently increased from 30 miles last week now that they consider the season 'open'). This wild landscape is the natural habitat of bears, Dall sheep, moose, and many smaller animals, all of whom call the Park their home. It is also the home of the highest mountain on the North American continent (Mt McKinley, now renamed Denali) and weather permitting (<20% chance) we see the mountain - no luck, heavy overcast. Lunch snack (emphasis on snack since it's sort of a "continental" box lunch - but it IS better than expected) included. It was suggested by one of the CruiseWest bus drivers that we borrow a pillow from our room for the trip - on a bus about like the usual "school bus", i.e., minimal padding or shock absorbers, driven over a gravel road, but it isn't necessary. Note: on the way out, we have to stop and pick up some more passengers at the Park Hotel inside the park. Based on the outside appearance, I wouldn't want to stay there: it looks like some 1950s era school "temporary buildings" (aka 'shacks') hooked together … and badly in need of maintenance. On the tour, we saw a fair amount of wildlife: black bear (distant), grizzly bear and cub (distant), Willow Ptarmigan (lots), Moose (1), Caribou (lots), Arctic Hare, Ground Squirrel, Dall Sheep, Porcupine, Golden Eagle, Raven, Magpie, and various other birds. It's a full day of travel - 6:30 until 3 PM. Nice. Great day!!

Later (4:45 PM) catch a shuttle to the "Alaska Cabin Night Dinner Theatre". Back to the hotel about 8:25. The dinner is pretty good; the show is a vaudville type based on a 1930s Alaska Roadhouse. The performers are very, very good. Quite an enjoyable evening except that the benches at the tables don't have backs. So my back has to take the strain (ouch!!) - which ruins any chances for a good rest tonight. Since its light until about 11:30, there's time to check out the tourist trap area, but as expected, it's really overpriced sucker-bait stuff. So back to the hotel again to do most of the packing since bags have to be packed and out at 6 AM. To bed about 11. It's been a long day - about 18 ˝ hours. (BLD)

Day 14, Thursday, May 31 Fairbanks, River cruise
Up at 4:15. Start off with another excellent Tundra Buffet Breakfast (5 AM) and have bags out by 6 AM. Then board the coach (fortunately, not the train) at 7:15 AM for the trip to Fairbanks. The CruiseWest driver is full of silly jokes which alternately have the passengers groaning, or laughing (seems mostly groans?). First stop is the University of Alaska/Fairbanks campus for their Alaska Museum. Excellect museum - best so far on the trip. There's buffet lunch included at the riverside Pump House Restaurant on the outskirts of Fairbanks. The restaurant's décor is an impressive trove of Alaskana (??). Then, since there's time, we have a brief tour of Fairbanks (the driver lives here).

The riverboat M/V Discovery cruise departs at 2 PM. "Step back to pioneer days with a delightful (????) cruise aboard the sternwheeler as she plies the waters of the Chena and Tanana Rivers. En route we will visit a native fish camp. See some reindeer, see Susan Butcher's Husky kennels, and finally a stop at the Chena Indian Village - a history village of the Athabascan Indians. Many of the crew of the Discovery are native Americans, and serve as the 'guides' during our stop here. We also have a sled-dog demonstration by Jessie Royer "Rookie of the Year" from the Iditarod. She finished 14th out of over 60 entries in this year's race. This stop is very nice - highly recommended, though the riverboat trip as a whole isn't all that great. The local scenery leaves lots to be desired, and the river is just a large, muddy stream. Yuck! At least the stops along the way are interesting, but the cruise itself, bah! Humbug! There's just not much to see or do in and around Fairbanks.

In the evening, there's a short 'wine and cheese' party included, and a nice buffet 'farewell' dinner at the River's Edge Resort. I had thought about skipping the dinner and doing a 'flightseeing' flight to Point Barrow north of the Arctic Circle, but since it wouldn't get back until after midnight, and it's an early start tomorrow, maybe next time. The sun (maybe) went down about 2:30. Maybe. It was still very light at 1:30AM Friday morning. Bus driver later said sunrise was at 3:15. (BLD)

Day 15, Friday, June 1 Back Home
Up at 4AM - since I have a 5AM transfer from the hotel to the Fairbanks airport. It's an early flight. I've got some leftover snacks from various places in my carry-on luggage so I don't get stuck having to buy airport junk food.

5Delta #248Fairbanks - Anchorage6:30 AM --
6Delta #248Anchorage - Salt Lake City - 3:19 PM6:49
7Delta #1180SLC - Houston4:35 PM - 8:48 PM3:13

Flight 5 - Fairbanks to Anchorage. Pretty much on time and the plane's pilot detours by Denali, but the clouds are closing in so only a brief glimpse. No breakfast, just juice. Flight 6 - After and hour + in Anchorage, we head off to Salt Lake City. The breakfast is awful - maybe (??) warmed up about 6 hours ago but now cold, soggy, greasy, etc. Yuck. Not much to see until SLC when we do get a good look at the lake. Luckily I have my own snacks for "lunch" during the layover. Flight 7 - Box supper on the plane. We're off a bit late, but get in early … to no avail since we have to wait for another plane to clear the gate. We do get to the gate on time and it's fairly quick to the car (9:15) Home at 10:05 - and straight to bed - even though it's only 7PM by Alaska time. (BL)

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

WILDLIFE: Orca, Humpback Whales, Beluga Whales, Black Bears, Grizzly Bear and cub, Moose, Caribou, Reindeer, Steller Sea Lions, Harbour Seals (and pups), Dall's Porpoises, Mountain Goats, Dall Sheep, Black-Tail Deer, Porcupine, Arctic Hare, Ground Squirrel, Sea Otters (and babies), Salmon, Crabs (Alaska King, and D…?), Birds: Bald Eagles, Golden Eagle, Ptarmigan, Black Legged Kittiwake, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murfleet, Arctic Tern, Raven, Magpie, and more. I guess we did pretty well.

TRIP RATINGS: (out of 5 stars)
1) Sheltered Seas *******
2) Prince William Sound ****
3) Land Portion ***
4) Cruise West Staff, both on-ship and support ********
5) Overall *****

1Northwest Airlines #1271Houston-Minneapolis7:35AM - 10:21AM2:461:04
2Northwest Airlines #945Minneapolis-Seattle11:25AM - 1:09PM3:441:40
3Alaska Airlines #67Seattle-Ketchikan2:49PM - 3:44PM1:5511:09
4Alaska Airlines, #67Juneau-Anchorage7:08PM - 8:44PM1:36--
5Delta #248Fairbanks, (Anchorage), Salt Lake City6:30 AM - 3:19 PM6:491:16
6Delta #1180SLC - Houston4:35 PM - 8:48 PM3:1312:40

Ketchikan, Westcoast Cape Fox, 2 nights, May 18 and 19 ***+
Petersburg, Tides Inn, 2 nights, May 20 and 21 ****+ (for the people)
Juneau, Goldbelt Hotel, 1 night, May 22 ***
Anchorage, Anchorage Sheraton, 1 night, May 23 *
(Spirit of Glacier Bay), 3 nights, May 24 - 26 **+
Anchorage, Anchorage Sheraton, 2 nights, May 27 - 28 *
Denali, McKinley Village, 2 nights, May 29 - 30 ***
Fairbanks, River's Edge Resort, 1 night, May 31 **+