Adventure Recap: Alaska

Day 0: So the adventure in Alaska began with the adventure to Alaska. Getting four children to the airport to take up an entire row of an airplane is itself an adventure. Add on to it weather and a ship’s set departure time, and you’ve got the makings of a

Macaulay Culkin movie.

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This was the radar screen for our 3:15 flight out of Atlanta. The only clear weather pocket as tropical storm Cindy passed through meant that we were able to take off on our 8-hour flight.

Day 1: Waking up at 4:15am in Anchorage meant there would be plenty of time to explore the city before heading to the ship. So I was able to cover a beautiful 6 mile run along a coastal trail that took me around a lagoon style lake and back towards a creek. Even within this “urban” city, the silence and beauty of Alaska was apparent.

From here we boarded a bus for a 2-hour drive to the port in Seward. Thomas was so impressed with the hanger that checked us in that he assumed we were already on the ship. But once he stepped on board, he found himself a nice little nesting place.

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Day 2: This was a full day at sea, which gave us plenty of time to check out the ship’s amenities and register the kids for Kids Club! Midway through the day they pulled us into view of Hubbard Glacier. Sadly, by the third day, I found myself taking the views like this for granted.

Day 3: This was our first port of call. We stopped in a town called Sitka. Thomas, Jim and I immediately got off the boat to go salmon sportfishing. Unfortunately for Thomas, within 5 minutes of fishing, he hooked his first king salmon. In fact, we had double hookups, so he also got to dance around the deck trying to bring in his fish while another woman brought in her salmon. I say unfortunate because Thomas will not learn the “joy” of real fishing where you troll hour after hour with one’s father to no avail. In the end all 5 of us landed salmon, plus a rock fish I caught.

The best story from the fishing excursion was back in the 1970s a local helicoptered 17 tractor tires into the dormant volcano. There he set them on fire unknowingly to the residents of Sitka. As a result the town awoke to smoke pouring from the volcano. It was not until someone looked at the calendar and realized that it was April 1st did the hysteria die down.

Back ashore, we toured the town of Sitka and found a great food truck.

Then, I went off on a trail run, which has now become the 5th stupidest run I have done (just behind the rattle snake encounter, and 9miles in 92 degree heat in Colorado without H20). As I headed out, I ran through an amazing Totem park lined with beautiful spruce trees. It was a gorgeous run along the bay that then began to follow a little creek. As I pushed further into the woods, I came across a backcountry single track trail. This being Alaska, “backcountry” began on the other side of the one road through town.

As I surveyed the trail map at the trailhead, I suddenly looked down at a large furry dog that stood waist high. Spooked, I looked for its owner. Then I laid eyes on a “true” Alaskan as the bearded, mulleted, camo-wearing, weathered man came sauntering towards me. I tried to give him the friendly, I’m a runner don’t murder me wave…but he just glared at me. Terrified, I took off on this trail unsure of where it went and how to return without getting skinned alive and being worn as this man’s winter coat.

Thankfully, the trail was a beautiful “cross-Sitka” trail that ran along the foothills above Sitka. However, as I pushed further from the town and out into beautiful berry patches, I remembered the lesson I learned on the cruise ship the night before…Black Bears eat berries. So fear of man turned into fear of beast. Nearing the 4th mile, suddenly my trail started to disappear due to overgrowth. So fear of man, turned into fear of beasts and fear of cruise ships leaving me behind.

In the end, I located a sign that pointed me downhill and back towards Sitka. As I continued on this path, I noticed large footprints along the trail. However, whenever they came to a bend in the trail or a water source the footprints seemed to go the shortest route. It was remarkable to see how the wild animal would use the human-made path for a while, but then could determine when it was more effective to blaze his own trail.

Also, I would like to extend my apologies to the charter bus full of cruise passengers that had to sit around my smelly, sweaty self on the transfer back to the boat.

Day 4: Our next stop: Juneau. Arriving mid-day, Jack and I took off to canoe to the Mendenhall Glacier in a native American-style canoe. The glacier was beautiful and fascinating to look at, especially to notice how far it has receded over the past few decades. Just a few weeks earlier, 50 feet of the glacier had calved into the water, and while I was hoping to see it calve I discovered it was far more rare and random than National Geographic lets on. Though another interesting thing I learned is that icebergs can flip and rotate. With only 10% of the iceberg exposed, as it melts from the warm water it can suddenly twist and turn in the water.

Full from the delicious cruise food, we ventured into the Juneau Salmon bake, where Ellie and Thomas could display their newly acquired skills at mining for gold, and Chef James shared his recipe secrets from his excursion.

Day 5: Up and early, Ellie and I got to head into the mountains for some rock climbing and repelling. For the past six months, Ellie joined the local climbing gym and made one outdoor climb at Crowder’s Mountain in preparation for this excursion. As the 10 year-old girl approached the group of climbers you could see their look of concern. However, once Ellie was on the rock face, the guides and others cruisers were impressed that she never hesitated. In fact, since we were one of the early tours and the members of our group were experienced, Ellie topped out on four routes.

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Interestingly, all of our guides were from App State or the VA/NC area. It seemed that they had gotten a test for the wild in the tameness of Appalachia that they were ready to press their luck in the wilderness of Alaska. At the end of the tour, the owner started upselling their other packages to Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, and their “Outdoor Leadership School.” Concluding this he said, “You can even get college credit through our school.” To which, Ellie looked at me and said, “Wait, I can go to college for this?” Uh-oh!

As we returned to the ship through Skagway, we discovered a little known fact about Skagway–the building’s paint reveals the building’s history.  Red paint meant the building used to be a brothel. And our tour guide explained that during the gold rush, Skagway had 40 brothels, 10 pubs and 1 church. This bit of information led to a fun conversation with Ellie about “what is a brothel” as we passed by a building where two actresses dressed in leggings and corsets hung themselves out of the second story building cat-calling the cruise-ship men (who were all smirking and taking photos). Ellie looked up at the women and said, “What are they trying to sell? Whatever it is they are not very good at marketing!” Needless to say, this conversation caused me to stop and try out the local micro-brewery and their SpruceTip Ale. We never did find the church.

Back at the ship, I once again laced up the running shoes but decided to run through town…until I saw a sign that said “Skagway trail system” beside the railroad and a local family walking the trail. In my head, I thought, “Perfect, if it’s safe for a family, I can do it.” Forgetting, of course, that Alaskan families are a bit tougher than the Charlotteans lining the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, suddenly at 1/10th of mile along the trail it makes a hard right turn across the train tracks up a mountain to a lake. This time there were plenty of tourists hiking the trail to alleviate any bear concerns, but only one fool was running the rocky and steep trail. However, the payoff was an amazing lake run in the mountains of Skagway. I hit the 2-mile mark, turned around and made the All-Board by 15 minutes.

Day 6: Once again, James and I were the first off the cruise ship to go on our excursion. While Ketchikan is the rainiest city in the U.S., the skies stayed clear for our full day on a small fishing boat. We spent the morning bottom fishing…well actually for 2 hours we spent the morning moving from inlet to inlet. Finally, as I feared this would turn into the usual Barry bust, we started to hook some fish. James grabbed two good-sized duskies.

Then, he turned to me and said “Dad, have you even caught a fish yet?” I was about to grumble “No” when my first rockfish hooked up. Within our final 30 minutes, our boat managed to grab a good haul, which is lucky, because then the captain drove us to a beautiful fish camp where we grilled up our fish and had a delicious meal.

Day 7: Another full day at sea, where thankfully the ship provided an excellent kid’s club. This allowed me to run around the 1/11th of a mile track, which guaranteed to be bearless. As we entered the Northwest passage I was able to spot a pod of Orcas and Jack and I spotted a pod of dolphins.

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Day 8: Morning broke with us having ported in downtown Vancouver. It was an eery sensation to have gone from the bucolic and serene sounds of the empty wilderness to the harbor of a vibrant city. Trains, helicopters and water-planes were swarming around us. So, here I guess is where the adventure ends and the reality returns.

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