Destinations

Cruising Alaska: Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan

July 13, 2016

“We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect,” said Anais Nin. Jessica has graciously welcomed me to share highlights from my recent cruise to Alaska. Writing about this trip let me be on vacation again – at least in my mind.

As a former flight attendant, it’s safe to say I’ve been a few places. I made it to all 50 states when I was 25, and have visited 13 countries on four continents. So far, I have yet to find a place as majestic as Alaska. It’s big, beautiful, and wild. I love it there. So much, in fact, that I want my family to spend a few weeks there in a future summer. (Added to my bucket list!)

We started our journey in Seattle, boarded the ms Amsterdam, of the Holland America Line, and had a day at sea before arriving at our first port in Alaska’s “Inside Passage,” the dangling collection of islands on the state’s southern tip.

Juneau in June

Alaska’s capital city welcomed us with a chilly fog. We wore light jackets and layers, ready for potential rain. From the ship, we could see the port town, tucked between vast mountains of green. That’s one thing about Alaska: The trees don’t seem to have an end.

crystalee Juneau edit

Since Juneau would be our longest Alaskan port (we had from 1:00 – 8:30 p.m.), it made sense to purchase a tour package. It was a wise decision. When we disembarked, there were several tour groups along the main walkway. We went with Juneau Tours, although from what I could see, more than half a dozen tour agencies offered similar services at the same rates. We were happy with our choice – a tour package ($120 each) for two activities: a ride to the Mendenhall Glacier and whale watching.

We boarded a bus in quaint downtown Juneau, which took us to the Mendenhall Glacier. You can pick your drop off/pick up times and I recommend giving yourself at least an hour (honestly, I wish we would have had two hours) at this beautiful spot in the Tongass National Forest. Buy a Day Pass (I believe it was $5 each). The first Forest Service Visitor Center in the nation was dedicated here in 1962, and it’s an interesting place with a gorgeous view, where we learned more about climate change, Alaska’s natural ecosystems, and the history of the area. Then we took the 2-mile roundtrip walk to Nugget Falls. It’s an easy walk with a paved walkway. All around us, we saw green. Then we heard roaring waters.

girls in front of glacier

From this spot, we could see the source of that sound, the Mendenhall Glacier. It’s one of 38 large glaciers that flow from the 1,500-square-mile expanse of snow and ice known as the Juneau Icefield. It’s tinted blue, which I learned in the Visitor’s Center, is due to the crystal-like structure of the water atoms, compressed and frozen over time. It’s stunning.

After this, we boarded another bus, which took us to a harbor.

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I’d never been whale watching before, and was assured by the “see a whale or money back” guarantee that we’d get some action. The two hours on the boat were punctuated with whale sightings. The first while, it was only little glimpses of their back. After about an hour, we got a tail, which was pretty cool. Although I enjoyed the view, I was hoping for more.

boat view

Then, in the last 10 minutes of our allotted time, BAM! A happy whale decided it was time to breach, or jump out of the water. He (or she?) launched out of the water, two seconds of pure power and elation. As you see on TV, the whale flipped his body so he wouldn’t land on his stomach. Our tour guide explained they flip so they protect their ribs – otherwise, it’d be a mega-sized belly flop. One guy in our group caught the breech on video, and thanks to iPhone’s Airdrop, I think all 30 of us got it within 15 minutes.

If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to see Juneau in June (I keep loving that wordplay), I highly recommend it.

Sitka

You may think you saw “Sitka” show up all over the movie “The Proposal” starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, but, I am sorry to tell you a local informed us most of that movie isn’t filmed on-site. Not to worry, the true Sitka is just as gorgeous!

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Sitka is a picturesque harbor town, and we were happy to have a warm, sunny day to enjoy it. You can walk the main downtown, with gift shops and historic St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, in about five minutes. I paid the $5 donation to go inside the parish, which is packed full of religious icons. If you’re into that kind of thing, you’ll like it. I did re-learn there that Alaska was part of Russia before the United States purchased it, and it’s interesting to see the historical influences in the area.

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If you see anything in Sitka, I recommend the Sitka National Historical Park. It’s the oldest national park unit in Alaska. Along the park’s trails, you’ll see 18 totem poles that tell the story of local tribes. You’ll also see a lot of animals. If you’re in Sitka in August and September, you can see spawning salmon take over the river. We were early for spawning season, but spied on a bald eagle during his bath in the river. Perhaps wanting more privacy (ha!), he flew right by us and I swear he had a six-foot wingspan.

Ketchikan

Here’s your Jeopardy tip: when you hear Ketchikan, think “What was Alaska’s First City?” and “Where is the Salmon Capital of the World?” I had the most delicious salmon in my life in Ketchikan, grilled up on the Lido deck of our cruise boat. (Apparently, they brought in fresh fish for the cruise lines.) Wow, it was pink and flaky – and this is coming from someone who generally doesn’t like fish.

Ketchikan town

I didn’t do your typical travel routine in Ketchikan. You can purchase tours, ride in helicopters, take a bear trip, watch lumberjack exhibitions, etc. I bet all of those things are great.

For me, I decided to break free from the crowd and go on an exploration run in Ketchikan. I wanted to get more a feel of what it’s like to live there. I had no end in mind: simply wanted to burn some calories while seeing the sights. I made my way through the neighborhoods, noticing street names like “Woodland Avenue” and “Salmon Way.”

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I spotted a sign for a hiking trail and followed the road until I came to Deer Mountain Trail. Oh my! What a lucky find. Deer Mountain Trail is absolutely breathtaking. I’d been told we were in a temperate rainforest, which is determined by the amount of rainfall, and this trail made me a believer. The moss, the puddles of condensation, the vines, the trees. Oh, it was a nature lover’s heaven! Next time I’m in Ketchikan, I’m heading straight to this trail.

Ketchikan Trail

We loved our cruise through Alaska; the landscape, wildlife, and culture are incredible! If Alaska isn’t on your bucket list, it should be! Have you been to Alaska? What was your favorite part? Oh, and don’t miss yesterday’s What to Pack for Alaska post.

 

Prone to wanderlust, Crystalee Beck is a writer and communication consultant who lives (and hikes) with her husband and two kids in mountain town, Ogden, Utah. She celebrates words at www.delightedtowrite.com. Photos are courtesy of Crystalee Beck and Emily Webb.

 

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