To Alaska!

I did not venture out on my own adventures until I was 19 and decided almost on a whim to go the the United Kingdom. Here is an account of my first journey to Alaska.

Growing up, I was always close to my grandmother. During my visits, I used to play play house in my grandparent’s Air Stream. My grandmother had been to all of the lower 48 states with my grandfather, who unfortunately became very ill during the final years of his life due to many years of smoking. During those years, my grandmother dedicated her time and effort selflessly to taking care of him. For him, it hurt to even breathe and he could barely make it to the end of a hallway without gasping for breath. When he died, his suffering had finally ended and that he was, at last, in a better place.

My grandmother had been all over the lower 48 with my grandfather, but never Hawaii or Alaska. A year or so after the death of my grandfather, my grandmother decided to lead the family on a cruise along the inside passage of Alaska and visit this [next to] Last Frontier. She sponsored the grandchildren to come with her, and everyone else had to pay their own way.

Despite being at conflict with my classes at the University of Florida. Alaska was worth missing 2 weeks over. Final grades in my two classes were probably cursed from the beginning. I managed to receive reluctant blessings from my professors and a load of reading assignments to take with me. I figured that if I had to read textbooks and write papers, it might as well be on a cruise ship. I still made C’s.

We flew to Seattle in two groups. My group flew in early and stayed in a hotel room in the suburbs south of Sea-Tac Airport. In Washington, we visited Mount St. Helens and Mount Ranier National Parks. I loved Washington, the air was clean and the temperature felt just right. Much to my chagrin, I had to see most of this from behind the windows of a climate controlled rental van. I would love to return there one day to and do some hiking somewhere in the Cascade Range.

Several days later, two of my aunts flew into Seattle and checked into a nicer hotel downtown. We met up with them and toured downtown Seattle. Although I returned to Seattle years later, I have two memories of this first visit: Starbucks stores quite literally right across the street from each other and the fact that there were so many crazy people out on the streets.

The crazies were beat only by my experiences in Houston. There were some people who stood and ranted, some who danced to music nobody could hear but them, and one who entertained himself by jumping back and forth across a crack in the sidewalk. I have heard that Seattle once had a system of dealing with the homeless that was so successful that other cities found that busing their own homeless to Seattle would be an economical way of addressing their problems. This caused the Seattle system to overload and eventually collapse. I do not know if it is true, but it would explain a lot.

Fish tacos, while strange sounding to a Floridian, seemed quite common on this side of the country. As common as they were, I did not venture to try them until two years later when I saw them on a menu in Florida. We were seated on a deck overlooking the port.

Soon after we took our seats at , waitresses walked to another table carrying a cake and singing happy birthday to someone. We [the grandchildren] started singing along with them, and then our party, and then everyone dining there jumped in. When the part of the song requiring a name approached, someone at the person’s table shouted it out so that we could all sing it. After it was over, everyone in the restaurant clapped and quickly returned to their own conversations. It was a lot of fun, and we can smile and say that we started it.
After dinner, we all made our way to the Seattle Space Needle. We stayed at the top for several hours and just talked or looked out at the city below. Two tour guides were walking around it and pointing things out in the city below. I took interest in watching a high school marching band practice in a field below. After the band ceased, I realized that it was nearly 9 PM and it did not look that late. We stayed up in the Space Needle long enough to watch the sunset at 10 PM.
The hot tub beckoned me early the next morning. After getting ready, I opened the door and my sister was sitting outside in the hallway. She had a fight with our stepfather and decided to spend the night in the hallway waiting for us to wake up. David can be difficult to live and travel with, so I certainly was not surprised that there were issues. We talked at the hot tub, and I decided that I did not want to be in a crowded vehicle with everyone and would rather stay at the hotel and get some reading done for school. I was now 19 and was at liberty to do as I pleased at this point. I offered my mom to let my sister stay in my room so that she could get some sleep. For several hours, I read while she slept. When she woke up, we decided to use the complimentary shuttle service that the hotel provided to take us into town for lunch. Out of all of the seemingly foreign brand names and chains on this side of the country, we decided that Taco Time sounded the most fun. It was.
The next day we boarded Holland America’s MS Oosterdam. Everyone was sent to the Lido deck to await their rooms while enjoying a buffet lunch. My cousin Kevin was in heaven. He could barely understand why I would want to explore the common areas while all of this food was there to eat. I explained to him that this was only the first meal, and that every single meal would be just about the same. I was far more interested in finding my “bridge.”

My “bridge” is an open air observation deck that sits right on top of the actual navigational bridge. It is a common feature of most modern cruise ships, however it can be difficult to find the access to it at times. I was half way through my cruise on the Carnival Pride by the time I was able to find that my bridge was located through a heavy door in a hall way and not anywhere on the sides. I normally report to my bridge first thing in the morning and several times during the day. It is a great place to relax with some coffee and take in views. I found my bridge and reported immediately when I felt the thrusters engage. I watched Seattle pass by and then checked out the other cruise ships and freighters as we passed. One of those ships was a Princess Cruise Line ship that had a similar itinerary to us, one that we would see time after time.
This was my 4th cruise. For the first time ever, the cruise was more the vehicle than the destination. Perhaps it was because of the lack of social interactions on the Oosterdam. On past cruises I had really enjoyed the youth programmes and the opportunities to meet new people. On this cruise, I was a young adult and did not fit in at the Club HAL teen group on one side, and on the other side found the ship to be lacking young adults that I could befriend. The good news was that I was able to gamble in the casino.
The first days at sea allowed ample time for gambling. I brought about $75 for this purpose and brushed up on the rules of various games before I left. Between roulette, blackjack, and craps, I had won over $900 dollars. Trying to make that an even $1000, I lost $300 of that in roulette and at that point called it quits. Though I was still $600 ahead, that loss really shook me up and I was afraid to loose it all. It was a great time though all in all. I will one day make a pilgrimage to Vegas, and try my luck there. Though winning big is unlikely, the games and the atmosphere are fun to be around.

From sin to salvation, one of our first days at sea was a Sunday. Holland America Line actually take chaplains on their cruises to lead mass for Catholics and services for protestants. Most of those traveling with us were Catholic, in fact there was a Catholic group on this cruise and so the mass had to be held in the primary theatre. As the then spiritual head of the Protestant side of the family, I talked my sister and cousin into going to services. The Protestant service attracted far more than they had expected, so many that they had to take down the wall and use an adjacent room to fit everyone in. In my typical style, I was early, and had the chance to meet the chaplain and be asked to do a reading during the service. Everyone in there were either older people or very young kids. The three of us being seen without our parents attending and participating in services left a good impression on those who saw us there.

Sleeping on a cruise is something I often forgo as I never want to miss a moment of it, whether organized activities, eating, or just standing out on a deck watching the ship move. In Alaskan waters, it was more difficult as the sun rose around 4am. Most mornings I woke up and brought my reading materials to the lido deck and worked a bit. This was rarely very successful. The morning we arrived in Juneau, I was glued to the windows. We were cruising along side a virgin mountain range on the approach. On occasion, we would pass a house, not connected to any road, just a boat in front of the house to get the owners to and from Juneau. This approach to Juneau was my first taste of Alaska and I loved it.

Docked, the announcement was made that we could disembark. I made my way to the gangway to leave the ship. All of the passengers scanned their cards and walked outside. Outside they stood in another line which was for a bus to shuttle passengers to downtown Juneau. The Oosterdam was a bit early, so the buses were not there right away. I hate lines, and I did not think we were that far from town but was not sure. At first I thought that this was the only option, to pay $5 for a ticket to ride this bus to and from the ship all day. Then the chaplain came out and told me that it was less than a ½ mile walk to the downtown and so, we walked past the line and down the road to town.

It was a gorgeous walk, the weather was perfect and I saw no less than 20 bald eagles. The chaplain told me about the Mt. Roberts Trail and how to access it from the road we were on. He also noted some other attractions in the area. As the chaplain, he was free to leave the ship at just about every port. What a neat life. We parted ways at the Red Dog Saloon just a moment after we saw the first shuttle drop off its passengers at the Mount Roberts Tramway. I arrived at the same spot at the same time as the bus, had a thoroughly rewarding experience, and did not pay a dime.

I traveled along Franklin Street and then took a right on 6th towards the trail head. I thought the city was nice and had a clean atmosphere. I commenced walking on the trail and soon came across an older couple walking down from a morning of birding. These were the last people I saw for a while. I continued up along switch backs, and every time that I had a good view of Juneau or the Oosterdam, I took a picture with my disposable camera to show the progression up the mountain. At one point along the trail, on my right was a great view of the valley with a single dirt road at the bottom of it. While looking down at the valley, a sight seeing plane passed below. Once again, I had a better view and did not have to pay for it.

To make sure that I did not miss the boat, I would periodically look at my watch and try to figure out the ideal turn around time. I figured that the boat left at 6, so I would want to be there at 5, so therefore how long could I venture out before having to return by the way that I just came? Because of the fear of missing the boat, I checked my watch quite regularly to double check my calculations. The times of most freedom come with the most responsibility.

Soon after I cleared the tree line, I came across the top terminal of the Mount Roberts Tramway. At this point, there were many people, mainly tourists from one of the 3 or 4 cruise ships in port. The views were nice, and the trails were far more worn down. I continued along the trail and it did not take long to be cleared of the worst of the crowd. I find it amazing that these people had their trip up a mountain facilitated, but still would not venture too far on their own feet.

The trail to the top of Mt Roberts was well worn and there were times that I could not tell which way the path actually went. At one point, I followed what I thought was the trail only to be sternly reprimanded by an older lady to stay on the trail. At some points the trail was lined with bushes, and at other times I would walk past or though packed snow. The further up that I went, the less people there were. I kept my eyes on the second and highest peak peak that I could see and kept walking.

I made it to the top and found that the trail continued on to a higher peak. If I keep shooting for the highest peak, I will never be satisfied because there is always something higher. I took a few pictures standing on top of a boulder at the summit and talked with a family that had just finished a picnic. They offered me food and water and I happily accepted.

On the way back down I talked with the family. They were not cruise passengers, they had driven to Juneau (via ferry of course) from British Columbia. It was a couple probably in their early thirties with 3 children. They had taken the tram from the bottom but were the only people that I saw other than myself who ventured to the summit. The children introduced me to salmon berries on the bushes as we walked back down the trail. Salmon berries were pink, which probably gave them their name, as they tasted nothing like salmon. We parted ways at the terminal and I was tempted to buy a ticket to the bottom so I would not have to walk. I resisted and continued down the trail.

After stepping onto pavement again, I decided to take a more scenic route back to the ship. This route took me by the State Capitol and several official looking buildings. I could not help but to think how small this city was for being such a major tourist destination much less a state capitol. At around 10,000 people, Juneau was about the size of Plant City, yet if you ask a New Yorker where Plant City is, nobody will have heard of it.

Heading back to the Oosterdam for a late lunch, I walked past the other cruise ships and determined that the Oosterdam was comparatively much larger than even the other Holland America ship in port. On my way, I began talking with someone else who was walking. I learned that she was a youth counselor for the teen group on the Princess Cruise Line ship that was docked next to my ship. I think she has a great job, being able to play games and facilitate activities day after day.

After lunch I decided to take one last tour of Juneau. My grandmother gave me her bus ticket (which is good all day) and I reluctantly accepted. She was not going back into town, so it was not of use to her. I still decided to walk, for it is the only way to truly experience any place that you visit. I spent some time visiting some of the tourist shops and before long returned to the ship. Tourist shops are about the same everywhere.

The next day we arrived at Glacier Bay National Park. Though it was not a port of call, we received a Park Ranger to give a talk about the Hubbard Glacier as we went past it. It was not too audible from most public areas, but it was a nice thought. The scene was brilliant, a wall of ice slowly crumbling into a pure blue sea. There was floating ice everywhere and many of those large chunks were occupied by seals. Pictures could not capture exactly what was there. There were constant crashes that sounded like thunder as pieces of ice came off of the glacier and fell into the water.

Nice of a view as it was, the observation areas were crowded and my mind went to other pursuits. It was this day that I took to serious gambling in the casino and came out well ahead. I was known to the casino staff as Forrest, because I would win and run to another game. When I did this, they would say “run Forrest, run” and I did. I won the money that I would use for a few adventures on shore.

On our approach to Sitka, I took note of a plethora of small islands. Some of them had houses on them, however others were just trees and rock. I decided that this would be a great place to rent a kayak and explore. Before we anchored, a plane flew overhead from the airport and made an immediate ascent to avoid plowing into a mountain. Not the ideal set up I thought for a runway.
Sitka is a shallow port, so ships docked had to ferry people to a dock by lifeboats. I was on the first lifeboat. Sitka was a beautiful city, but Captain Mercer had managed to get there early enough that the town was not quite ready when we arrived. I walked through the downtown area past the closed shops along Lincoln Street and straight toward Sitka National Historic Park.

Nearly a decade prior, while visiting Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia I purchased a little book called the Passport to the National Parks in which people can collect rubber stamps at every site that is operated by the National Park Service. These stamps have the name of the park, location, and date that the park was visited. After the seven or so dollars on the passport, the stamps are free and a neat souvenir that does not take up much space in your luggage. Also, if you are in an area, you can consult this book and see if there are any parks to visit. Overall, I think that this was a good buy, I have in it proof that I have been to national parks from the US Virgin Islands to Alaska.

Immediately after receiving this stamp, I went on my merry way to find a Kayak to rent. In route, I noticed a museum of marine life and went to check it out. It was early enough that it was not open yet, but the girl opening let me peek around for free as she opened. I got directions from her to the best place to rent kayaks and I went.

For less than $50 I could rent a kayak for 9 hours, more than enough to explore sufficiently. I did so with some of my casino winnings and set off to look at the islands. Up close, the islands were interesting, with sea anenomes and starfish in great abundance on the rocky shores. I also saw many bald eagles flying around looking for the fish that would jump out of the water all around me.
Eventually, I came to a neat looking Island and decided that I wanted to land on it. I followed the rocky shoreline around and tried unsuccessfully to land at several points around. This island was like a fortress. As I went around it, I looked up at it and noticed that it was indeed a fortress, an abandoned WWII fortress. This being found, I now had to land the kayak and explore. I finally did in a very risky manner manage to land and pull the kayak out of the reach of a visibly rising tide. The island was everything I could have hoped for. I wandered around the island for at least an hour, climbed though the fort, found old machine gun mounts and barracks, and found some really old pieces of trash. I took pictures of the fort, but none of them came out well because of the lighting. This was worth every cent of the $50!

I finally left the island, and circumnavigated the Island with the airport on it. At one point, I joined with an organized shore excursion as they kayaked around the same island. I passed a US Coast Guard dock and then decided to do a figure 8 around the Oosterdam and the other ship anchored beside it. As I did this, I passed a few lifeboats and the people waved and took pictures. The same would occur as I passed the ships. I am probably in over 20 photo albums of complete strangers who thought that the guy on the kayak was pretty interesting.

After turning in my Kayak, I took a walk around the town. I kept looking at license plates thinking that if I saw someone from Florida that I will shake their hand and buy them gas. They were all Alaska tags with an occasional British Columbia or Washington tag. The shops were small and the people in them were friendly. Most of them had country music playing in the background. I bought an Alaskan brand of soda and started talking to the cashier.

The cashier was a student from Montana who took a job in Alaska to be near her fiance, a Coast Guardsman in Sitka. It seems that many of the people working in the shops were seasonal people from the Outside (as Alaskans refer to anywhere outside of Alaska.) What a way to spend a summer! Just three years later I would be going to Alaska for a seasonal job with Princess.

During Russian ownership, Sitka served as the capital of Alaska. I then went on to the site where Russia formally presented the United States with Alaska. Apparently, both nation’s armies were in formation in front of a flagpole on a hill near the downtown area. The Russians took down their flag, and as it was going down a gust of wind tore the flag and sent it flying onto the bayonet of one of the Russian soldiers. The American flag was quickly risen without incident.

The Russians also left their mark in the way of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. I visited Saint Michael’s, the Russian Orthodox cathedral in the middle of downtown Sitka. St Michael’s stood out in the middle of Sitka with its unique onion-like dome. Personally, I found it to be a really pretty building, but it was nowhere near as old or as old looking as a stereotypical cathedral. Apparently, the original Cathedral that stood on that spot burned down in the 1960’s and it was rebuilt in 1972 to look like the original one.

In the gift shop of Saint Michaels, I purchased several items for my Catholic grandmother who would still appreciate the icons and symbols of this church. There were very attractive items for more than fair prices. I generally do Christmas shopping anytime I travel so that I need not worry about finding token items in the middle of Christmas rush. Speaking of Christmas, I learned at the Cathedral that Saint Nicolas (aka Santa Claus) is the patron saint of Alaska and also those who travel by sea. A perfect saint for our cruise to Alaska and also a very fitting Christmas gift.

After the cathedral, I had an errand to run. For the Captain’s Dinner, I had remembered my Navy ROTC uniform, but not an undershirt. I found a clothing store and was greeted immediately upon entry. The girl asked what I was looking for and found it for me. The friendliness and helpfulness of this sales person persuaded me to buy the pack of 3 undershirts despite the unfriendly price of $8.

On cruises I always eat at the informal buffet meals, but I always make an exception for the Captain’s Dinner. For the Captain’s dinner, I dress the part and enjoy the meal which is always better that night. Most nights, it is the same stuff on the buffet as is being served at dinner, the exception being that I don’t have to wait for it, and I do not need to change for it.  So, after I returned to the Oosterdam that night, I quickly showered, shaved, and donned my uniform for the Captain’s Dinner. Leaving out of my room, I started walking up a staircase when an older lady mentioned to me that the cruise was going well and that “we” were doing a great job. I mentioned to her that I was not on the Ship’s Company and then soon after was stopped by the ship’s Chief of Security informing me that I was not in the uniform of the day. I then informed him, that I was wearing a US Navy uniform and not a Holland America uniform and he apologized. I started looking for my family and another older lady stopped me and asked me if I could show her the way to a certain room. I decided to be a gentleman, and despite the fact that I was not a member of the crew, escorted her to where she needed to be.

When I finally found my family, they were in line to meet the captain and proceed to the dining room. Captain Mercer was the first captain that I ever met who spoke enough English to actually engage in conversation. He asked me about where I was stationed and I informed him that I was a midshipman at the University of Florida. He seemed impressed and told me that if I was interested, he would arrange for me to spend some time on the bridge. Of course I was interested.

The dinner that night was amazing as expected. I decided to invite my grandmother to dinner at the premium dining room the next night with some of my casino winnings. I spent a little more time on my bridge that night, regretting that my time at sea was over half over.

I awoke early the next morning and reported to my bridge to watch the approach to Ketchikan. As we neared, I went to the gangway to disembark. This being late in the cruise, people were not so excited about getting off and doing their shopping. Granted there were plenty of shore excursions, but there was not much more to do in Ketchikan than to shop. I was the first one off of the Oosterdam as the Chief of Security called out, “Let loose the dogs of war!” and opened the door.

The town was built pretty much built on pilings along the waterfront along one main road. I decided to travel left on the road to see if I could find a library to check my e-mail from. I walked past a knock off of Burger King called Burger Queen and proceeded past some canneries and warehouses. In front of one of the warehouses, I found an unopened condom on the ground and found the randomness of such a discovery mildly amusing. A little further, I came across a more commercial section of town. This was the real Alaska, these were the shops that the regular citizens shopped at. This was the part of the city that I found most interesting.
Finding no library after an hour or so, I changed course and went towards a touristy section of town. Subway tempted me with the great smell of fresh baked bread, but I resisted mainly because of the fact that it was still morning and that store had not yet opened. Past the tourist section, there were once again regular shops for the regular residents. Curious, I walked into the grocery store and window shopped. In 2004, a small box of cereal was $6.00. I do not remember the other prices, but they were all equally as high.

Near the grocery shop, there was a small trail. I decided to follow that for a bit and found many spots where it was apparent that people had been drinking as well as many other legal and illegal activities. The trail went on, but I turned around before too long.
Many of the cruise ship passengers were being taxied or shuttled to a park full of totem poles. They charged admission, and to be honest, totem poles get really old after a few stops in Alaska. As I walked back towards the shopping district, I was passed by a carriage with several of my family in the back seat taking a picture of me and waving. Though a busy fishing town, I found little to do in Ketchikan as a visitor. I did, however, find a silver coin in a gift shop that was engraved with a cruise ship and the words, “Alaska Cruise 2004” on one side and “Inside Passage” on the other. I decided to buy this to present to my grandmother. I showed it to my cousin and sister who thought it was a great idea and bought shares in it.

The next day, I reported to the actual navigational bridge at the Captain’s invitation. I was served coffee in china and was given a grand tour of everything on the bridge. It was a very impressive room, with room enough to fit 20 people relatively comfortable. On the bridge I could sense the urgency to get to ports before other ships in order to acquire better spots to dock. The Captain and his crew had what appeared to be a rivalry with the Princess ship that was shadowing us since we had first left Seattle.

The Oosterdam was a great ship commanded by Captain Mercer. Most captains and their crews are Italian, Greek, or something that prevents them from having an in depth conversation with their guests. Captain Mercer contributed much to my experience on the Oosterdam.

One freighter hailed the Oosterdam and asked in very bad English that we decrease speed to allow them to pass. The only problem was that they were a slower ship and were barely visible to us on the horizon off of the stern. It was a curious request to say the least.

When we arrived at our final port of Victoria, Canada, Captain Mercer had the ship back into the port in order to save time leaving. As we did this, the Princess ship approached but could not dock until he had finished that maneuver. People on the shore were watching as we backed into the parking spot in disbelief. The harbour pilot thought it was a rather cheeky course of action as well. But it was done and done well.

When the action was over, and we stopped, I made my way back to the cabin to change out of my uniform. This time I was nowhere near the first off of the ship and I took my time. I even took dinner before disembarking the Oosterdam.
Once again, we were some distance from the main part of town and taxis and buses were waiting to take us downtown. Once again, I refused, although this time it was a longer walk though suburban neighborhoods and not very scenic.

Though there were some nice buildings, there were at least as many, if not more, crazy people in Victoria. As I walked by a church, one lady came up to me yelling that I need to quit talking with her girlfriend. I watched as an American woman ran up and shooed her away. She was a regular visitor and warned me of the fruitcakes on the Victorian streets. I thanked her and went to the first bar. I was 19 years old and of legal age in Canada. It is always nice to be freer in another country than here as citizens in our own.
Walking back along the dock was rather impressive as the ships docked formed a massive metal canyon. The walkway between them was as wide as a three lane road, and probably hundreds of people walking along this corridor. Upon returning to the Oosterdam, I returned to my bridge around midnight and watched as we cleared the port. Of course, this was quick and painless as the ship was backed into her parking spot.

Within a few hours, we would be enjoying our final breakfast before disembarking the Oosterdam. It is amazing how difficult it is to adjust to life after a cruise. You cannot leave dirty dishes outside of your room to be taken away. You cannot have all you can eat food and drink at any hour. You rejoin the bigger world that does not revolve around you. After a week on a cruise ship, the real world is bitter culture shock.