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Maps and The Inside Passage

I was pretty ignorant about Alaska before we left on our trip and returned even more ignorant.

I had a lot of questions about the state that never got answered to my satisfaction.

For example, I never quite figured out why Alaska has such a strange configuration.  I mean, if it was just a hunk of ice when Secretary of State Seward purchased it from Russia, why did it include the bizarre little strip of land in the south known as "The Inside Passage"? 

What made that slender strip of islands part of Alaska and not part of Canada?

This southern strip of Alaska is so thin and so mountainous, they can't even build a road through it. That area you see on the map is 90% islands and channels. 

And why didn't Seward shell out another $200 or so and buy land all the way to Seattle so we wouldn't have to get our stupid luggage checked by Canadian customs in Calgary?   If Seward had so much "vision", why didn't he buy a couple more islands and made a clean sweep of the Northern Pacific Coast?

The main reason Alaska was called "Seward's Folly" is because you can't drive an automobile anywhere that's interesting. 

For example, Juneau is not accessible by automobile. It has cars, but they had to be shipped in.  The nearest highway is about 100 miles up the coast at Skagway.  In other words, the State Capital is pretty difficult to get to.

Second, it is aggravating to find that about 70% of the famous Alaskan Highway actually is located in Canada. 

Third, I learned the hard way that the answer to practically every trivia question about Alaska is "Seward".  For example, I could have sworn the famous Alaskan earthquake of 1965 destroyed Anchorage.  But what town was destroyed by the tsunami that followed?   You can learn a lot by reading Rick's travel blog, that's for sure.

The Inside Passage gets its name from a labyrinth of channels, straits, islands, isles, and inlets.  A ship can completely avoid open water if it wishes for quite a stretch. The distance on the map at right from Prince Rupert Island at bottom to Skagway at top is nearly 500 miles long.

And since there is no point in building any highways, the entire area is a vast paradise accessible only by boat or ship.  By coincidence, we just happened to be on a ship so we were treated to endless vistas of amazing beauty on both sides of the ship as we weaved our way through the various passages.  And best of all, there was practically no sign of mankind for days at a time. 

It was wonderful to be able to see these islands the same way a Tlingit Indian must have seen the area hundreds of years ago. 

It isn't often you get to see a complete wilderness from the comfort of a cruise ship balcony.

Whale Country

There were whales aplenty in these waters, but unfortunately they don't surface very often.  One evening as we ate dinner we spotted a dozen different whale flumes plus an occasional whale flipper or two. We were mesmerized to be sure.

The whale flume is the Achilles heel of the world's largest mammal.  Spurting 20 feet in the air, this spray is a dead giveaway for the whale's presence. 

And now you know where the term "dead giveaway" comes from... whales are sadly among the world's endangered species because they are so terribly vulnerable to modern technology.  Back in the days of Moby Dick, it was quite a contest to bring down a whale.  But these days the whale gets spotted it is pretty much defenseless. 

Fortunately in 1966 the International Whaling Commission outlawed much of the hunting of whales. This has allowed a slow, but gradual recovery of their population. 

In the map above, you can trace our route.

  • We started in Vancouver and landed first in Juneau.  Juneau was marvelous fun. Not only did we enjoy a look at the Mendenhall Glacier, but an afternoon trip up the Mt. Roberts put many group right in the middle of a fabulous mile-high Alaskan rain forest.  In a word, "Wow!"
  • From there we made our way up the channels to Skagway for our second stop. If you look carefully, you will see how close Skagway is to the Canadian border.  After sailing from Seattle to Skagway, the Klondike gold rushers of 1898 had only a 20 mile hike to get into Canada.  But that was the toughest 20 miles imaginable!  The majority of our group thoroughly enjoyed a train ride right up to Canadian border and back.  The pain and suffering of the miners was made highly evident to all of us. We could not imagine how a trail could ever have been carved out of terrain as rugged as we were witness to!
  • After Skagway we went further north to visit in the incomparable Hubbard Glacier.  Many people considered this to be the highlight of the trip.  It was an incredible sight to be sure.
  • From there we put out to see and circled back to Ketchikan at the southernmost tip of Alaska's perimeter.  Ketchikan is located right at the edge of the fabulous Misty Fjords National Forest.  Flying over the Misty Fjords was my favorite adventure of the entire trip.

One more day at sea and we made it back to Vancouver to end our week's trip.


Juneau is the state capital of Alaska. 

Juneau is located in the middle of the Inside Passage at the southern tip of the state.  Behind Juneau is massive Mt. Roberts. The front of Juneau is a narrow fjord. Across the channel about a mile away due west is a huge island which faces Juneau.  The area is very secluded and very beautiful.  The rolling hills on both sides of the channel are dotted with lovely homes.

Juneau was by far the most attractive of the three Alaskan communities we visited.  As I checked out the narrow channel, the snow-capped mountains, the thick misty clouds, and the lush terrain, I couldn't help but wonder if I was viewing a fjord in Norway. The entire city is a post card waiting to happen.

As all of you know it was named for Juno, the Roman Queen of the Gods. It is a little known fact, but Juno was also the Goddess of Glaciers.  Thus is a highly appropriate name because just north of Juneau in the suburbs is the massive Mendenhall Glacier (seen at right).

This glacier is so accessible you can actually drive a bus over to it.  About 30 members of our group did exactly that. Not only were they treated to the sight of this magnificent frozen sea, there was a spectacular water fall and amazingly beautiful Nordic garden to see as well.

A glacier is a frozen river. It is actually moving all the time although much too slowly for anyone to notice while standing there.

Due to global warming, most of the Alaskan glaciers are retreating at the moment. Don't get me started on what I think about global warming...

The Mendenhall Glacier is also highly accessible by helicopter. Quite a few us including Marla, myself, and our daughters Marissa and Sam took the helicopter ride as did a dozen other members of our group.  The copter ride was a first for our family and we loved it!

Once the copter set us down, we realized we were in the middle of a gigantic valley. We were surrounded on three sides by massive peaks. 

The terrain was bizarre. It seemed more like a moon landing than anything else. You definitely had to watch your step. Everywhere you looked there were small and large crevasses.  A couple of these jagged holes were large enough to swallow a man, but I didn't see any that looked life-threatening.  Nevertheless I watched my step very carefully.

I counted over a dozen waterfalls that sent winter snow melt plummeting spectacularly thousands of feet to our valley below. It may have been July, but there was still plenty of snow up there that was just now melting down to the glacier.  (You can probably see a couple of the thin waterfalls in the picture at right featuring Jess and Pat Carnes).

Oddly enough none of this water was part of the glacier. Instead it formed an underground river that emptied into the lake at right. Some of the water reached the lake via the waterfall seen at right. Was this area a beautiful sight?  Take a guess.

The helicopter people like myself missed out on it, but the bus visitors were treated to a wonderful sight at the foot of the glacier: a rain forest garden. 

I have only included a few of the photographs, but I can assure you the vegetation was lush and bountiful. There were countless strange flowers and flowering bushes and trees everywhere to behold.  They all had a strange pink or purple hue that I had never seen before. 

In fact, the entire garden was so unusual I fantasized it could have served as an Alien Landscape in a Star Wars.

Did I mention Juneau was stunning?  On our bus ride back to the ship, our bus driver talked about an afternoon walk to this peak and last week's hike to that lake and tomorrow's trek to his best friend's cabin for some fishing blah blah blah.  I just wanted to tell him to knock it off.  Maybe I was a little envious.  This place is truly a paradise. 

Texans Can Visit and Spend Money, but Need Not Stay

We actually took two bus rides in Juneau on our way to and from the helicopter port we used to visit Mendenhall Glacier.

One curious thing I learned during our first bus trip was that Texans are not very popular here in Alaska.  I have heard this sentiment before in Colorado on many an occasion. There it makes more sense. Since so many Texans own property and second homes in the state they often act like they own the place.  

But I was a little surprised to hear a similar attitude expressed as far off as Juneau, Alaska!

It turns out that there has been bad blood between our states that goes all the way back to the 1950s. At that time, Alaska was trying desperately to win support for Statehood.  Two senators in particular were doing every thing in their power to block this move. These Senators were from Texas. In fact, I believe a certain LBJ was also opposed to the move.

After several tries, Alaska finally got enough support to win the vote in 1959.  However the Senators from Texas both voted against the proposition. 

Since then, the Alaskans have neither forgotten nor forgiven Texas.

I was a little embarrassed by the impromptu tongue-lashing.  I was in the fourth grade here in Houston back in 1959.   I distinctly remember Texans weren't particularly happy about being relegated to "Second Largest" by the addition of the 49th State. 

The bitter joke at the time was "Alaska may be bigger, but wait till the ice melts."

Sadly, that is exactly what is happening now. The ice is melting and guess who the Alaskans blame?

They blame George Bush, a Texan, who is doing everything in his power to open up the fragile tundra of North Alaska for oil drilling.

They blame all the Houston-based oil tycoons who they claim were responsible for the Exxon Valdez disaster.

And they blame the Texas-controlled White House that is probably the least environmentally-friendly administration in history for doing nothing to fight the energy policies behind global warming.

Needless to say, once he realized he had a whole busload of Texans, we got an earful from our bus driver.  In fact, we inspired him to tell us more.  He told us in no uncertain terms that Alaskans are not only the richest people in America thanks to oil profits, they also distrust all forms of state and national government more than any outsider can ever imagine. 

They also distrust people who move to Alaska. Apparently they are worried all the welfare people are going to start moving North to Alaska in search of a free ride. 

The bus driver concluded by saying all of us Lower 48 people can come visit Alaska any time we want just as long as we promise not to stay.  He was actually a very interesting man.  I was amused he couldn't have cared less that he was carrying a busload of Texans.  Didn't bother him a bit.  Besides, he had the microphone.  The bus was his personal soapbox.

I remember a fascinating TV show a few years back known as "Northern Exposure." that was set in Alaska. More than anything else, the show revealed an oddness and eccentricity about the Alaskan people.  For eight years their quirkiness fascinated us city-folk in the Lower 48 who loyally watched the show.  It hinted that maybe all that ice, snow, and cold did "things" to people.  Or maybe it was the Northern Lights that did it.

Till now I hadn't realized how much that show had shaped my preconception of the Alaskan people. But I just couldn't help but think our irascible bus driver had stepped right out of one of the plots. 

Mount Roberts

After we returned from Mendenhall Glacier, our next adventure involved taking a gondola ride to the top of Mt. Roberts.

I don't think there is any way to describe Juneau's geography without a picture.  Juneau is nestled into rolling hills at the foot of a gigantic mountain named Mt. Roberts that suddenly shoots straight up over a mile high!  The first picture at right shows how tiny little Juneau sits at the foot of Mt. Roberts.

Notice that when you get to the top of Mt. Roberts, there is another range of even larger mountains just behind it.  In other words, if Juneau wants to expand, it needs to get wider because it sure isn't going to get deeper.  Someone already figured this out since there is quite a bit of development going up on the island directly across from Juneau. You should be able to notice a flatter terrain across the channel where all the new homes are going up.  This area is considered Juneau's "River Oaks" and is home to Juneau's Elite.  Isn't it nice to know you can even have snobs in the Arctic Circle?  At least you can have the satisfaction of knowing their nose is cold from being pointed upwards all the time.

Once you get to the top of Mt. Roberts, the terrain levels off and creates the opportunity for a gorgeous mile-high nature walk that is not really very steep at all.  If you look at the picture at right, you will see the trail drawn out in a very large meadow.

That nature trail was unbelievably beautiful.  I love to walk at the Houston Arboretum, but sadly our hometown nature walk doesn't hold a candle to the thick rain-forest beauty up in the clouds above Juneau.

Well over half our group took the tram ride to the top of Mt. Roberts.  There was a tourist lodge above that showed a video on the Tlingit Indian culture and gave people a chance to drink coffee amid the heavens.

Did I mention just how steep the tram ride was?  Oh goodness, it seemed like we shot straight up in the air.  Juneau is pure rain forest.  It rains constantly in this city which creates stunning green panoramas as far as the eye can see.  And those ever-present misty clouds give the place an eerie ethereal quality to it.  

Another curious thing I noted was the tramway was located right across the street from the cruise ships.  Our Radiance was not the only cruise ship in Juneau. In fact for an entire week four different cruise lines kept the identical itinerary. 

As a result, on the day we were in Juneau, perhaps 7,000 tourists descended on the city all at once.  With the tramway situated about 100 feet from our ship, imagine how many people take the  Astroworld ride at $20 a pop to the top of the mountain. 

Ka-ching, Ka-ching.

But I didn't feel cheated. Standing there on top of the world was an absolutely wonderful experience.  For a moment I was Odin up in Valhalla staring at my vast domain.

As you can see from the pictures, it was marvelous to look down at our cruise ship that suddenly looked like a toy boat in the bath tub.

Once our group got to the top of Mt. Roberts, we realized there was a nature trail to explore.  Marla, Marissa, Sam and I made the long loop around.  We had our breath taken away repeatedly by the beauty of it all.

When we got back to the lodge, we ran into Gary Richardson. I immediately talked him into going back up the trail.  Marla and Marissa weren't interested in doing it again, so Sam, Gary and I headed off to explore further. 

During this portion of the walk Sam had a great deal of fun at my expense.  First she gave me a long lecture on how I shouldn't eat the berries.  Then she made fun of a hole in my pants and the fact that she could see my underwear. It didn't help that every now and then she would stick her finger in the hole and make it bigger.  Then she blamed me for being so "unattractive" that I had scared off every animal on the mountain. 

I had to admit that last statement got under my skin. I had come to Alaska to see "Abundant Wildlife" and so far had nothing to show for my efforts at trundling through this rain forest.

Then it happened.  We spotted an animal!  Yes, indeed, a dangerous primitive animal feeding in its natural habitat!   Was it a wolf?  Was is it Caribou? Was it a moose?  Was it an elk?  Was it a mountain goat?  Was it a bear?  Was it an eagle or a mountain lion?

No. It was an amazingly FAT squirrel-like animal known as a Marmot (loosely rhymes with "varmint" and looks like one too. Hmmph).

This animal was totally unafraid of us. The three of us walked to within two feet of it and it never even bothered to stop feeding.  Gary Richardson wondered if the animal was posing when he shot the picture at right.  The animal sat up and cocked its head so Gary could get a better angle, then went right back to eating when he put the camera down.

I suppose when 7,000 tourists a day drop into Juneau, after a while you've seen one tourist, you've seen 'em all. This marmot could have cared less about us.  Thank goodness he found time to spare a moment from his eating to allow us a snapshot. 

Little did I know at the time, but that close encounter with the deadly Marmot was to be my only sighting of an Alaskan animal.  Thousands of dollars spent on this trip to see Abundant Alaskan Wildlife and all I get is this stupid Marmot who didn't even have the respect to be afraid of me.  "Bitter" doesn't even begin to sum up my disappointment.  And the one animal we do see turns out to have an attitude.

Fortunately there were other things to do besides look around trying spot a bunch of spoiled rotten, overfed animals.  For example, there were lovely ferns to be admired.  And lofty snow-covered peaks to be gazed at. And slender waterfalls descending from the slowly melting snow fields.  There were valleys and vistas and there was lots of mud...

Yes, it decided to rain. Actually we were pretty lucky when it came to rain.  Friends of ours from previous trips had said the single most important thing to pack was a good raincoat. 

Taking that advice, before the trip I went to the Army Surplus Store here in Houston and for $80 bought the finest poncho in stock... and promptly forgot to bring it on this mountain hike.  How was I supposed to know there was a nature trail at the top of the mountain? 

So I got wet. And I got cold. And I started to shiver.  Meanwhile my daughter Sam had brought her ski jacket which included a hood.  She reminded me of how STUPID I was to buy an $80 poncho and not even think to bring it along. She asked me what did I bring in my back pack to assist with survival.  Under intense questioning I admitted I had brought a computer chess game named "Friend" along. 

Sam laughed in derision. "You are visiting one of the most beautiful landscapes you will ever see in your entire life and you brought a computer game along?"

"But what if I get bored?"

"You are so hopeless, Dad." 

Sam thinks she's going to a good college.  North Harris County Community College Steno School sounds about right to me at this point.

Meanwhile rain, cold, mist and all, we kept climbing higher and higher. The trail gives you a choice of making a Loop or heading up and up and up.  We decided to take the one that went up.  We met up with a lot of people from the group on the trail including Pat Salinas, Anne Fry, Sandy Upchurch, Cathy Elzner, Greg Biasetti, Iqbal Nagji, Michelle Spiris, Kevin Lee, Stacey Hupe, and Barbara Fuller.

Plus Cher Desperate Housewife Longoria, and Robert Goin' Somewhere were up there too. As usual they were showing off how physically fit they were.   How obnoxious!!

Normally I like Cher and Robert a lot. They are cheerful, friendly, funny people. But I didn't like them much on this trip. While I sat in a helicopter looking at stuff, they did a nature hike. While I sat in a train looking at stuff, they did a bicycle tour. While I sat in a plane looking at stuff, they did a kayak trip.  Every day while I got fatter and fatter from four meals a day, they got slimmer, trimmer, and happier.  Who needs jerks like these spoiling your vacation?

One person I did like was Gary Richardson. As a rule, he was just as sedentary as I was.  He's a good man.  I also am grateful for his immense help at chronicling this trip. Gary Richardson was kind enough to take many pictures of the members of our group. He even took a shot of hole in my britches at Sam's request, but I decided to spare all of you that particular photo. 

Indeed it was a memorable afternoon climb.  We were already a mile high when we started our climb. According to trail maps we managed to walk yet another half mile higher.  The water below began to look very distant as we stood in triumph on top of the world.

Iqbal, Sam, and I climbed the highest. It wasn't a dangerous climb at all other than the encounter with the deadly killer marmot.  But there was still plenty of trail left when we decided to turn back around.  We had a deadline to meet on the last tram down the mountain and decided not to risk getting stuck up there if another rain storm came along.

Once we got back to the lodge, I struck up a conversation with one of the ladies who worked there.  As I sipped a cup of coffee, we talked about her heritage as a Tlingit Indian and how the members of her tribe had slowly but surely assimilated into the white culture.  She said there was some occasional prejudice towards people of Indian descent, but at this point there was so much intermarriage between the whites and the Tlingit women (where else were the miners going to find a wife?) that everyone in the Inside Passage part of the world was completely laid back on the whole issue of race.

Instead all Alaskans have bonded against what they see is an invasion by outsiders flocking to exploit Alaska's riches any way they can.  Like the bus driver before, Texans seem to get the brunt of their wrath. The lady proceeded to tell me a joke that went something like this:

The lady had just moved with her husband to Juneau from Texas. Soon her new neighbor, a native Alaskan woman, invited her over one afternoon for tea to welcome her to the neighborhood. As they drank their tea, they were conversing on a porch swing.

The Alaskan asked why they had come all the way from Texas. The Texas lady, an obvious delicate flower of Southern womanhood, responded that her husband worked as an executive for an oil company. Since their three children were now in college, it was in his best interests to come to AlaskaHis large raise would cover their tuition plus the move would advance his career so they could eventually retire
someplace very nice.

On the one hand, the Texas lady supported his move. That said, she let it drop that moving here was an enormous hardship on her.

The Texas woman said she had left behind an incredible home. She added, "When my first child was born, my husband built a beautiful mansion for me. Unfortunately we had to leave it behind."

The Alaskan woman commented, "Well, isn't that sad!!"

The Texas woman continued, "When my second child was born, my husband bought me a fine Cadillac automobile and a new one every year since then. Unfortunately we had to leave it behind."

Again, the Alaskan lady commented, "Well, isn't that sad!!"

The Texas woman boasted, "Then when my third child was born, my husband bought me this exquisite diamond bracelet!"

She paused to display it to the Alaskan woman, then continued. "
At least I got to bring this with me. Unfortunately I had to give up my membership in the country club so I have no one important now to show it to."

Yet again, the Alaskan lady commented, "Well, isn't that sad!!"

The Texas woman then asked her companion, "Do you have children?"

The Alaskan lady smiled and said she had one child who was in school today.

The Texas lady commented, "Oh, isn't that nice! 
What did your husband buy for you when you had your first child?"

The Alaskan lady replied, "My husband sent me to charm school."

"Charm school!" the Texas woman cried, "Land sakes, child, what on earth for?"
The Alaskan lady responded, "So that instead of saying 'who gives a shit,' I learned to say, "Well, isn't that sad?"

So now you know what people think of Texans in these parts.

That said, with Mendenhall Glacier down the road and the Mt. Roberts nature trail just a tram ride above and surrounded by Abundant Wildlife, Juneau is a truly blessed area. 

They probably would rather I not tell anyone how great this place is, but tough.  The cat's outta da bag.

Move to Alaska and be an intruder. Live there for free on the oil profits that get distributed yearly to each and every Alaskan. Get a kayak, visit the islands, take a daily hike and spend your days visiting with the Abundant Wildlife.  You could do worse than a lifestyle like this, I promise.

And find that bus driver and tell him Rick sent you.

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