That just doesn’t seem like a good idea. Way to cold. Hypothermia could be a huge problem right? Not if you’re adequately equipment for snorkeling during the summer with water temps around 50 degrees F. We’ve been snorkeling in the Caribbean several times along with Hawaii and loved it so when the opportunity to snorkel in Alaska came up, we took it. Sure, being cold while doing this was a concern but full wetsuits were provided and I’ve been swimming in water that cold before and survived. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for our entire family to compare snorkeling in Alaska to the Caribbean. We did this through Snorkel Alaska in Ketchikan. Our adventure began just after six in the morning. As you can see in the photo below, the sun was close to the horizon as the day was beginning.
First off, protection against the cold water is required and 7mm thick wetsuits were provided. They work by trapping a thin layer of water between you and the wetsuit and that water is warmed by your body. In order for this to happen cold water from the water you are swimming in needs to enter the wetsuit. My expectation was to have a cold water shock for a short time. What actually happened was feeling cool water for a second or two before it warmed to body temp and remained warm for the duration of the snorkeling experience.
I often forgot that we were in cold Alaskan waters because almost everything was covered by the full wetsuit or the mask and snorkel. There was a small section of my face exposed to the water and that is the only way I cold compare the ocean water temp to my wetsuit temp and I had to concentrate a few times in order to feel the cold water. Otherwise I didn’t even notice. The most difficult part about snorkeling in Alaska is putting on the wetsuit. Imagine putting on a pair of leather pants about two sizes too small and you’ll get the idea.
Once in the water there were amazing kelp beds and sea stars of varying shapes, sizes, and colors all around. After the entire group was swimming comfortably our dive instructors began bringing up animals from the bottom and providing interesting information about each one. Most of them ended up in our hands for a minute or two before being put back where they were found. It was nice to be able to see these because the water clarity was not great on this day and it was mostly cloudy so not as much light was available to penetrate deeper into the water. We were able to see about 10 feet under the surface before losing visibility.
These dive instructors were the best I’ve been with. Always helping and showing us different highlights with great enthusiasm and energy. What was even more impressive about these instructors is this was the last few days of August and they had been doing this same adventure all summer. Most people seem to tire of giving the same tour day in and day out over several months. If these instructors were tired of this excursion, they didn’t let it show.
During our time in the water two Bald Eagles joined us and watched as we moved around in the water. That really added to the overall experience. I’ve never been observed by an Eagle at such close distances before. Soon it was time to get out of the water and head back to our cruise ship. I was amazed just how short this time seemed. It felt like we were in the water for less than 30 minutes. We used a GoPro camera to record the event and when I went back over the video we were actually in the water for over an hour. Unfortunately the camera direction was adjusted during the swim by a nearby fin so the video doesn’t really show much. I could have used another hour just to continue exploring these Alaskan waters.
Just coming off of a cruise ship and you’ve got a full day in Skagway. How to spend that day exploring? There are a number of things to see and do here. First off, the most popular attraction is to hop on the White Pass rail, sit back and enjoy the amazing countryside all the way to the Canadian Border and back. The mountains, lakes, and waterfalls are very impressive.
We choose not to do this. Why? Partially because that’s what most people do and partially because of the cost. Is there a better way to spend our time for the money spent? Turns out, this was probably a very wise choice. During the summer it is very common to have cloudy, rainy, cool weather. This translates into very poor viewing conditions. Especially the morning we were there, visibility was about 50 –100 feet. That’s not to say that the entire train ride was like that but a good portion of it was on this day. The photo below shows the visibility most of the way up the mountain. If you can believe it there is a car not far in front of us with it’s lights on and you can’t see it. Neither could we making a trip up the mountain somewhat disappointing. Especially if you paid a hefty price for each person to ride a train through this incredibly scenic country. Don’t get the wrong idea. This wouldn’t be such a popular excursion unless most people enjoyed it and saw the countryside.
What else can you do in Skagway?A walk through this gold town is interesting however also obviously a tourist spot due to all of the souvenir stores. Part of this area contains the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Very interesting information about the beginnings of Skagway and its importance in US History. Part of this park include the Chilkoot Trail. From the cruise ships there are a few excursions you can take that will give you a feel for this trail and surrounding area that many people seeking gold over a hundred years ago walked. We did enjoy a short time downtown in Skagway and learned a little about the gold rush here.
Another option for exploring this destination in a day is to rent a car. Sourdough Rental was the company we used. It took a little extra effort to reserve the rental but worked out quite well. We had three cars for our entire group and all of them had over 120,000 miles on them and all of them got us to where we wanted to go without any problems. Since the cruise ship was docked at this port for 13 hours we had plenty of time and flexibility with the freedom of our own car for the day to explore the many sights not available within walking distance of the ship. In addition, the cost was the same as one person taking the White Pass rail to Canada and back with more comfortable seats. Only we had five people in the car.
Sourdough Rental is a short walk from the port and they provide a suggested itinerary that allows you to see the mountains, national park, and possibly wildlife at certain times of the day. That’s all for another post or two coming up however, the drive into the mountains is on the Klondike Highway which essentially follows the White Pass rail lines which is how we knew what conditions the train drove through. So if you’re feeling adventurous while in Skagway, a rental car may be the way to explore this area. Just make sure of one thing – keep track of time so you don’t miss your ship!
While glaciers may be the focus of Glacier Bay National Park, wildlife is abundant and exciting to watch. Fortunately, most of the wildlife became visible after the glaciers were well in the rear view mirror so a decision on what to watch was not required. For some time whales were surfacing with some regularity with a spout over here or the back of a humpback off in the distance. A highlight was when you would see a tail reach out of the water. After a little while of whale watching we observed several spouts together indicating a number of whales close together which was abnormal with every other whale we had seen up to this point.
Zeroing in on this group with binoculars confirmed a group of whales until one of them came out of the water further. The distinctive white oval on the nose of this whale told of a pod of orcas coming our way. I had really hoped to see killer whales while exploring Alaska and couldn’t believe this was what I was looking at. In the picture above, several dorsal fins of these orcas are seen swimming together. Very exciting! Fortunately there were two more pods of orcas which could be seen from the cruise ship during the short time near Alaska. Unfortunately there where no real great pictures of these to show here. Especially since one of the killer whales came up out of the water creating a spectacular sight. It will have to live as a memory.
Another creature that became plentiful near the entrance to Glacier Bay were sea otters. They almost look as though they are just out for a casual swim enjoying the day. Maybe they were. Fun to watch as they troll along in the water not really paying attention to this huge cruise ship passing by. Probably have seen plenty of these ships throughout the summer as this was the last week in August.
Our most impressive memory from the wildlife in Glacier Bay National Park was seeing a humpback whale breach. I understand that this photo below is not all that spectacular but seeing in unfold with your own eyes is. Keep in mind that this photo was taken about 13 stories up using a wide view since you never know where something will happen. While cruising along in Glacier Bay we decided to set up a GoPro using the time-lapse function which allowed us to catch this event. Some of that time-lapse follows below.
Glacier Bay National Park is a phenomenal place to explore. That’s why it is so unfortunate getting there can be a bit of a challenge. There are only two ways to get there – by boat or by plane. The most common mode of transportation are cruise ships to experience this beautiful park. Overcoming the challenges to get there are worth it once you’re surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and abundant wildlife. Serenity and excitement overtake you as the rest of the world fades into the back of your mind. As you listen to the sounds of nature and view this amazing landscape a calmness sets in. It’s almost impossible to think about someplace or anything else in this untouched wilderness. The spirit of Glacier Bay burrows inside of you to bring a calmness difficult to find.
What’s the main reason for exploring this area – the glaciers of course. There are a number of glaciers most of which are currently receding. Fortunately there is one that is maintaining and that is Margerie Glacier. This sheet of ice moves on average six to seven feet each day providing those lucky enough to be there at the right time a show of falling ice that can’t be imagined. Even though this photo below shows the interesting and spectacular mix of colors, it is still not the same as being there. These colors change as the clouds shift moving the suns rays onto different pieces of ice. As those rays are moving, the ice begins cracking making thunderous noises that tell of the power of a moving glacier. It is at that point you realize how a massive sheet of ice moving can carve the landscape.
Watching this glacier finally allowed me to understand how glaciers work. All that snow during the year piling up onto itself, compacting, melting, compacting further until that snow becomes such a dense sheet of ice that the earth below starts to crush under it. Underneath all this ice, streams and rivers form from the melting ice and snow above creating a sort of waterslide which enables this huge sheet of ice to slowly move toward the water. As you watch the glacier from the water you can see places under it all where water is is running and have created tunnels in the ice itself. Amazing force of nature. And to think, all it takes to destroy this is constant moving water.
To give a perspective on the size of this glacier, this ship is 15 stories tall floating next to the Margerie Glacier. All this ice stand 250 feet tall so you can imagine how impressive it can be when a piece of ice falls off crashing into the ocean below creating large waves. Unfortunately we did not get to witness this in the short time allotted to experience this glacier. The views and sounds gave lasting memories without the calving ice.
Less than 100 feet away is the Grand Pacific Glacier. This is an entirely different story and it is receding. Difficult to imagine. So close to the Magerie Glacier yet does not receive enough snow each year to maintain itself. At first glance it appears like a piece of the mountain. Further inspection shows the melting ice underneath all that debris captured as it carved its way through the mountains. An amazing view it’s leaving!
When traveling to Alaska one of the sights on most people list is to see glaciers. Juneau provides the opportunity to see a glacier up close. There is s short trail which will take you relatively close to it. For an even closer view, using a kayak will allow you to explore this beautiful ice sculpture even closer. Our adventure took us over the Nugget Falls Trail. As you near the glacier, the sound of rushing water overwhelms the air. The trail begins to clear and there is the impressive Nugget Falls pounding its way into the bay.
This rushing water appears as though it is coming right out of the mountain because the river above the falls is hidden by the landscape. Once this sight has been absorbed you continue looking over the rest of the scenery and almost take a step back after spotting the Mendenhall Glacier. Seeing the icebergs that have fallen off and are floating nearby, the size of the glacier, colors that you’ve been expecting to see but still are unprepared for, and the texture of that blue ice created from melting waters. To think about all of the stone this glacier has eroded away under its massive size and realize all it takes to destroy this moving sheet of ice is a steady flow of water carving away every hour for days and weeks, even months. What a spectacle of natural forces at work.
As the clouds move so do the colors and peaks created in the glacier providing a different view. The urge to swim to the glacier become stronger. Just to walk on it and touch. No, these waters are to cold and there is no good way around the water fall or over the mountains to touch the ice created hundreds of years ago. You have to settle for the view. A very memorable view. Once you’ve taken in the glacier there is more to explore here. In August salmon begin running up stream to spawn. This brings other wildlife as well such as eagles and bears looking for an easy snack.
Unfortunately we didn’t see either along the stream. It was still a beautiful sight and entertaining to watch as the salmon make their way upstream. There was plenty of evidence that bears had been here – fish skeletons along the side of the steam and pathways from frequent use along the shore. Timing just wasn’t right. Plenty to explore at Mendenhall.
An Alaskan adventure was one of the most anticipated trips on our board once we decided it was time to explore the National Parks Monopoly Board. Anytime someone asked where we were headed this year and found out it was Alaska there were nothing but positive remarks. Either they had been there and would like to go back or would love to go there. We were amazed how many people have traveled to Alaska, usually on a ship. With so many positive comments how could one not be excited to go? Was it possible to have too high of expectations and be disappointed that Alaska didn’t live up to them?
After a few days of exploring Olympic National Park and touring Seattle, the time had arrived to board the ship towards this highly anticipated destination. We were fortunate to share this experience with a number of friends and family who decided to join us for their first cruise making it even more memorable. For the first time our ship left the dock before our 4 o’clock departure time catching us off guard as I usually like to be out on a deck as we set sail. Hmm… maybe I had better pay closer attention to time on this trip. There’s a history of me getting on board at one of our stops right before we sail. In fact, I’ve been the last one getting on the ship before. I could very well miss this ship if I try to do that this time. Noted!
Seattle faded into the horizon and two other ships were in tow as we left Puget Sound bringing rougher seas and more ship motion. A little time settling into our state rooms and then dinner. Completing dinner there was little to see outside as darkness had fallen bringing eagerness for the next days views as we enter Alaskan waters. Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, and Victoria oh my.
Morning light began shining in the window. A quick look out of the window showed why the ship seemed to be rocking so much – 15 –20 foot swells along with clouds and fog making the shore difficult to see. From time to time the mountain ranges would appear however nothing more impressive than we had been accustom to seeing over the last couple of days. As the day at sea wore on, the clouds and fog continually increased reducing visibility considerably. The cold and wind made taking a stroll outside unenjoyably. Being restricted to the inside of the ship there wasn’t much to do that day but eat. Guess we were in the right place for that. From time to time the shore would reveal slightly taller mountains exciting those who saw it as these indicated what might be ahead.
Day two brought calmer waters as the ship was now sheltered on both sides by mountains and clearer views of shore. Snow was beginning to show up near the peaks on mountains proving the journey further north. If it wasn’t for the snow and cold it would be difficult to know if you were in Alaska or Hawaii as the shape of the mountains looked very similar. As the day entered noon the first glaciers began appearing however the picturesque landscapes were only partially visible due to the low hanging clouds. Still they were beautiful to see. What amazing color these glaciers have even under this dreary sky. At this point I was a little disappointed because this type of weather was in the last forecast I looked at for most of our Alaskan Adventure. That meant peering at these vistas from inside the ship and not being able to see them in all their grandeur. O.K. it was too early to let this dictate my attitude for the rest of the trip. There was still much to see and do.
On to Juneau!