Alaskan Adventures

Review by: Aasawari Shenolikar

Destination: Alaska


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An avid writer, I love to travel.

Of the various things on my bucket list, whale watching takes the top spot. Thanks to Nat Geo and Discovery channel, whales spouting and cavorting in the waters has been indelibly imprinted on my mind. When an opportunity arose for me to tick off the first from my bucket list, I grabbed it, and hopped on to a Princess Cruise Liner that took me to the last frontier - the pristine and untouched and yet untamed Alaska. Of course, Alaska is not known only for its wildlife, wildlife made famous by various channels – the salmons returning home to spawn, the grizzlies feasting on the fat salmons and the migration of the great whales. Alaska, the word comes from Alyeska, coined by the Aleuts, the original inhabitants of the land, and it means ‘the great land.’ Alaska is that and much more. This largely unexplored land, that can fit in three of the largest US States -Texas, California and Montana - also boasts of the longest coastline. Home to nearly 22 million acres of rainforest, and more than 3 million lakes (!), Alaska is a great place for adventure junkies. The biggest State of the USA, because of extremely inhospitable conditions, doesn’t boast of a good road network and most inhabitable places are accessible by water ways. Which is why small seaplanes or ships are the preferred mode of transport. For all those who have a ‘must item to experience’ on their list, they must book it while they are booking their tour. Don’t think of disembarking and then looking for indulging in something of your choice in the hope that it might be at a cheaper rate. In case you ignore this, be ready to be disappointed. Imagine, three to four liners, disgorging 3000 passengers each, all of whom wanting to have a piece of the cake. With restrictions on the number of tourists visiting certain places, all the land tours get booked pretty early. With a population of just 32,660 Juneau doesn’t have sufficient manpower to take care of the influx of millions of tourists from May to October. Many University students grab this opportunity and take a break from studies so that they can act as guides, drivers etc. ‘Living my dream before I go back to studying,’ is what one guy from University of Pennsylvania, who was our driver told me. After sailing for a day and half, the liner docked at Juneau, the capital of Alaska. From here we were to hop on to a bus that would take the visitors on another scenic cruise into the Alaskan wilderness. Hopping onboard the Allen Marine Cruise from Auke Bay, I, along with others, was taken to Orca Point Lodge. Standing atop the Colt Island, this is a single lodge so named because one day the people living here spotted hundreds of Orcas in the Stephen Passage. At the lodge, fresh salmon grilled to perfection satisfied my gastronomic senses. The fish needed no accompaniment as each morsel melted in the mouth. After a sumptuous lunch, I was ready to cross off that ‘first’ from my bucket list. On the way the skipper pointed out Steller sea lions huddled on a buoy, bald eagles soaring high in the clear blue sky dotted by fluffy white clouds and Dall’s porpoises playfully diving in and out of the water. And then the catamaran stopped because the skipper has spotted spouting in the distance. As I trained my binoculars in that direction, sheer rapture had me rooted to the spot. There, in my line of vision, was the most fascinating sight - a mother humpback and her calf breaching, rolling, slapping their pectoral fins and tail flukes. For half an hour, the show continued, and the only sound that was heard this duration was the furious clicking of the cameras in sync with the whale’s breaching - splash-click, splash-click. This is the moment that I carried back with me, that I relive time and again by looking at the pictures of the great humpback and her calf. It was time to move on and experience another dramatic scenery - that of the Mendehall Glacier. Stretching from the Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall lake, it has been slowly retreating since 700s. From the visitor centre, the glacier has receded around a mile in the last century. “Global warming is the main reason that is slowly killing these marvels,” apprised the manager at the visitor centre. The 12 miles long and half a mile wide glacier is a sight to behold. Reflecting the absorbed sun’s rays, the glacier emits a blue glow. This is more apparent when the sun is obscured. Walking trails take you right to the mouth of the glacier where it meets the lake and if you are lucky you can spot the ice cleaving from the mass and floating away lazily into the blue yonder. And if you are suitably attired, you can wander deep into the ice caves formed at the base of the Nugget Creek Falls that provides water to the Lake. On the way you can spot many tiny streams of fast flowing waters –-that are the Salmon’s path to its place of birth. On the culinary front there is much to sample in Juneau - the Alaskan Brewery Company’s beer or the Heritage coffee should be a must on a tourist’s itinerary. And don’t miss out on a photo op with Juneau’s famous dog Patsy Ann, an English bull terrier who is ‘the official greeter of Juneau, Alaska.’ Born deaf, the dog had an uncanny ability to ‘hear’ the steamships approaching the Gastineau Channel and was always the first one to greet the sailors. Downtown Juneau is a couple of miles long street housing shops selling local wares. Visitors can pick up curios, but they are a tad too expensive. A wooden salad mixer that was priced at USD 22 in Juneau, I bought for USD 5 in Houston. Juneau’s wet and wild environment supports the ecosystem that has given rise to the Tongass National Forest. 17 million acres of this vast uninterrupted forest is spread across Southeast Alaska and on the next stop at Skagway, I was fortunate enough to enter deep into the world’s second largest rainforest. Skagway, that has a population of only 968, became famous as gold-seekers poured in search of the precious metal. The Klondike Gold Rush lasted for a few years, and one tour in Skagway takes the tourists panning for gold. If you are lucky, you can carry back the nuggets that you have found. It was not the yellow metal that fascinated me, but the curs. And off I went deep and high into the rainforest to meet the professional mushers and their amazing canine companions. A total of 270 Alaskan huskies were being trained for the world’s toughest race, the Iditarod. And the amazingly friendly and enthusiastic dogs were ever eager to take people for a ride of their lives through the dense forest. The mushers train the dogs, and the practice sessions include running 100 miles every day! “To prevent injury to the paws during the Iditarod, the dogs wear socks. And if there are 16 dogs pulling a sled, with so many feet to take care of, and change of socks, a musher can spend as much as USD 12,000 on socks alone,” says Joe, the musher whose sled I was riding on. Pairing of the dogs needs to be spot on, the lead dogs have to have the best temperament and the pair has to gel with each other. A lot of studying of the dog’s behaviour goes into before they are ready to be hooked up for the race. The journey back to the liner was through picturesque scenery and from atop the high mountain, I was able to see much of Skagway’s pristine beauty. Those who want to savour a ride in a train, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad offers a 41 mile trip all the way to Yukon, Canada. The ride aboard the most ‘scenic railway of the world’ is another unforgettable experience in Skagway. Kayaking, horseback riding, river rafting, ziplining are some more adventurous things to indulge in. The journey continues aboard the Crown Princess that sets sail for Glacier Bay, and beyond. More on that next week. n