Woke up a little hungover from last night, but at least I woke up back in the United States and on Alaska time, which meant I gained an extra hour of recovery. There’s Admiralty Island on one side and mainland North America on the other. A cloudy morning with some passing shots of rain. Today’s forecast was Juneau, capital of the 49th state and former home of ex-governor Sarah Palin. Got my walk-a-mile done on Deck 3 and admired the coastline filled with dense evergreens and untouched inlets. Amazing how close our boat got to the shoreline… a solid 9-degree driver shot from the observation deck and I would have hit land on the fly. We’re that close. Loaded up on the fruits and proteins then hooked up with some new buddies and took some stunning photos of the serene landscape. Low-level clouds against the dark canopy revealed small valleys and hills of several of these hidden coves with nary a land-borne soul in view. So, this is what John Muir and George Vancouver saw all those decades and centuries ago. Whoa! Is it wrong to think that after looking at all the evergreens, I conjure up thoughts of… lumber and profits. Pulp shortage, my ass. I’m sure we could make a killing selling all this pristine, old-growth wood to the highest bidder in China. If peeps are so worried about the national debt, here’s one way to clean the ledger. It’s not like Alaska is the only place where home-quality wood thrives, and we’re only talking about the small panhandle of one state. Just a thought.
What I don’t get is why aren’t more passengers out on deck admiring the scenery? Heck, you’re on an ALASKAN cruise to see what Alaska is all about… well, there it is. What’s that saying? “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Man, I ain’t never seen so many trees in my life. What’s oddly pervasive is the low-frequency hum of the ship’s engines as we slice through the calm ripples of the Inside Passage. It’s a gentle reminder that while we observe the solitude that is southeast Alaska, we are still chained to the conveniences of modern transportation. Quite ironic in some sense but the sound is easy to block out.
Then, out of nowhere, in the distance on the starboard side, just beyond the reach of a bell-shaped hillside is our first glacier sighting and mutha-ffff, that was one gigantic glacier drooping off a steep mountainside whose peak was smothered by the high clouds and expressing that mythic “glacier blue” glow. What an awe-inspiring sight to behold! It is said Alaska harbors over 100,000 glaciers, but most of them are unnamed and receding quickly like Paul Gwine’s hairline. My new friend sighed like she was having an orgasm when that glacier came into view. Quite a moment we shared.
And, getting back to those inattentive passengers… yes, you could have learned more about flower arrangement, partook in yet another art auction, bedazzled your peers in morning trivia, mastered acupuncture to solve your back pain, or even sculpt your body at ‘boot camp’. But, ask yourself this… is that why you got on this cruise??? You paid $1000 to get on an ALASKAN cruise and your fondest memories will be about why the yellow sunflower should be placed to balance the red branch???
As we neared Juneau, I grabbed a quick bite at the Lido buffet then ran back to the stateroom and packed my belongings for what would be a fantastic excursion to visit Shamu and Humpy. When docking at a port, go out and watch how the captain maneuvers a monster boat to its dock in between two other mega-boats. The parking job was better than how I usually slide into a street slot in downtown Seattle.
What about Juneau? Man, I tells you that is a city with some of the most boring architecture of any state capital. I viewed a slide of the building that houses the Legislature and I thought it was some rundown shady hotel on Jackson St. Ugg. Lee. The other buildings that define the downtown Juneau skyline are like, well, think an outpost in Russia and you have a good idea. As for Juneau being a tourist mecca… that, it is not. Once you disembark, you are greeted by… no, not jewelry shops or souvenir shlops, but more like… bars. Lots of bars. Heck, I’d drink too if Palin was my governor and I had to look at those fugly buildings all day long. It’s that depressing. But, from the bow, I will say that the backdrop of steep and scarred Mt. Juneau makes the city a palatable sight. Here’s a photo tip: bring a tripod. You’re on a hulking 100-ton floating piece of metal. Once anchored to the dock, you will get some eye-popping shots using a long-exposure technique. Just wait for sunset/sunrise, under a minimum of natural daylight. You can skip the tripod by making use of the sturdy railings but you will be quite limited in composing your shots.
I boarded a private coach bus along with about 30 other passengers and we headed out to a distant dock and boarded a speedy double-decker boat to see if the company could deliver on a “guarantee” viewing of whales. The odds were actually quite in their favor as (1) it was summer; and (2) there was lots of food below the surface. Initially, I thought the poor weather would hamper our chances but Alaska is the essence of “micro-climates.” Once we rounded Admiralty Island (and yet another lighthouse), our captain drove us to his “guaranteed” spot off Point Howard on the Chilkat Peninsula and, *bullseye!*, there near the pristine shoreline was a small pod of orca whales swimming happily on its travels. For a few short periods, the pod would disappear, then reappear on the opposite side of the boat. It appeared to be two adults and a baby in tow. What a view! And, not just the whales themselves, but also the location… the background of the hills and dales and snowcapped peaks along with the dots of islands in the mid-ground. Fortunately, the weather opened up to soft-filtered sunlight so I got some great, evenly lighted shots.
Here’s a photo tip: when shooting on a moving platform (eg, a boat) move off of “program” mode and switch to shutter-priority. Push the speed as fast as you can. I shot at 1/500th to 1/840th second using a prime f/2 lens. Practically all of you do not have such a boss-type of lens, but that’s okay, as long as you understand that you should be shooting at a minimum 1/250th second in order to get a decently sharp-focused picture. After that chase, we backtracked to North Pass (between Lincoln Island and Shelter Island) and caught a flotilla of vapor-spewing humpbacks as the sun finally burst through some ominous clouds. Good gawd, they look like mythical giant serpents right off our teenie boat. They were being tracked by a few smaller pleasure boats and a couple of the humpies decided to give them a close-up view by surfacing about 20 yards away from their motor. Incredible to witness these beasts toying with us humans! Great show, giants! As an encore, on the way back to the dock, we caught a clear view of Herbert Glacier, nestled between two mountains with a couple more monstrous glaciers dominating the mountain peaks.
If creature-watching isn’t the thing for you, then try the helicopter tour that lands on a distant glacier in the massive Juneau Icefield. If you have never been in a helicopter and only seen the ones that report on the city traffic, then this is the one for you. You takeoff from nearby Douglas Island on an Era Helicopter and suddenly, the city Juneau becomes a small dot outside your window. Next thing you realize is that you are flying OVER the mountain range that barricades and isolates Juneau (there are no connecting roads) and all you see is mountains and ice and a few lakes. Breathless! About 30 minutes into your adventure, the heli lands smack dab on a glacier and you get out and walk on the darn thing. yes, it’s very slippery. No, I didn’t see any ice worms or other forms of life other than us. And yes, the surface is very slippery (it’s ice, stoopid) with some deep crevices ready to swallow you if you aren’t careful. After that, you are whisked back to the helipad, but not after cutting through some massive valleys filled with the white stuff that is the massive Juneau Icefield.
If adventure isn’t your cup of tea, then take the bus tour to Mendenhall Glacier. It’s the only glacier that is readily accessible within a state capital’s city limits. You can’t drive up to it like the Exit Glacier near Seward, but you can get fairly close enough to take a decent picture. Just be careful as there are brown bears that inhabit the visitor areas. You’ll know if there has been a sighting as the park rangers make their presence known. The glacier itself is a good half-mile away from the nearest viewing area but you can also see bergy bits (pieces of the glacier that end up floating in the bay) filling the landscape in the bay the glacier created. High up on one side of the mountain is an impressive waterfall and is also home to mountain goats. Trot on up to the visitor center to learn more about the history of the area and also touch one of the bergy bits that rangers pulled from the water. Check out the crystalline patterns in the ice… like nothing your freezer produces.
And, if the weather sucks, go ahead and walk on over to the Mount Roberts tramway for a bladder-squeezing ride up a steep mountainside and over the treeline for some incredible views of Juneau and some challenging hikes. Buy your tickets on the boat and you get to use the “express” lane to the tramway, which is a timesaver whenever four ships are docked.
Finally, for you lazyasses who live on your own “standard time,” you can stay on the boat and enjoy some card playing (gambling not allowed while in port) or movie watching. Of note, the boat carries an extensive list of dvd movies. Just go to the front office and request a movie you selected from the catalog in each stateroom and it’s yours. Every room has a dvd player so, theoretically, you could bring your own, but… why? You’re on a cruise. Their whole job is to entertain you. Don’t make it easier for them.
Also, should you venture on your own into the nearby area, here’s what you can expect. Ever heard of tanzanite? Yeah, you will know all about it by the end of the cruise. I swear, there are as many jewelry shops at these stops as there are in the Caribbean. Who the hell buys a watch these days??? What’s the lure? Simple. Most of these stores pay the cruise companies to be a preferred advertiser in these pamphlets handed out to passengers during these shopping lectures. The offers are quite enticing… “free” this or “99 cents” that with a $5 purchase. It’s things you really need, like porcelain coasters, Big Dipper hats, a koozy, a recycled shopping bag, or your very own ulu. What is an ‘ulu’? Let’s just summarize it this way… it will be the most useless kitchen instrument you will ever own. It will be relegated to frequent use for shaving the pubic hairs off your skanky heels. You wouldn’t buy that shit back home so why the heck does it sound so delectable on your vacation??
Getting back to the tanzanite deal. I swear… what happened to good old diamonds and gold? No, even the jewelers want to appeal to the hipster in all of us. There’s tanzanite, which is a light purple glass mineral, then there’s larimar, zultanite, ammolite, gold quartz, and gold flakes suspended in mineral oil. What’s wrong here? It’s like you go on vacation, become a ‘tourist’, then lose all notion of sensibility and fall for these cheesy gimmicks. Then, you return home and in a fit of buyers remorse, you succumb and actually place that worthless “handcrafted Alaskan charm bracelet” in your living room showcase because you just cannot come to grips that you were the fattest lollipop that walked off that ship.
The latest gimmick is a dandy. Some of these stores are strategically located in every port your fat boat stops at so they will entice you to collect a “free” Alaska charm bracelet (a “$50” value… mind you, they meant fifty Syrian dollars) where you pickup a unique charm at each of your stops. The goal is simple… get your dumb ass into the store where the master sellers ply their craft and get you to buy that ridiculously overpriced necklace or watch at a “discount.” They appear to be quite successful at converting these big boat zombies as there are plentitudes when it comes to jewelry shops at each of these stops. All you need to know about this is to look at the coupon book they hand out on-board. You’ve been warned.
With all my escapades, I got back to the boat at sunset and was too late for the formal dining first-seating so I heaved it up to the Lido buffet and self-served some prime rib and salad. Weather was mostly clear when night fell… a great time to try long-exposure photography.
Tonight’s after-hours entertainment will be all about the big 80’s. Should have brought my dad’s mullet wig…
The bigshots seem to be pushing this wine on passengers. Big time. And, I can understand why, considering what the charge is for this bottle. Old folks tend to go with flavors reminiscent of their younger days, and that taste tends to be citrus-flavored. Think lemon cake, lemonade, grapefruit, lemon sours, etc. Also, the food served tends to require a helpful lift from a beverage and so, why not a decent sauvignon blanc? It’s a great pairing with chicken, pork, and even salmon and halibut. A no-brainer, really. Plus, the profit margin is killer here.
Tasted at 52-64 degrees on the IR temp gun. Color: gold foil. Nose/flavors: pink grapefruit, lemon squeeze, pear. Mouthfeel: medium-bodied. Tail trail: 6 seconds.
Alcohol: 13.0%. Horse Heaven Vineyard. Fermentation: 60% stainless, 40% neutral oak. Sur lie aged 4 months. 6% semillon. pH 3.05. TA 0.70%. Power: 2/5. Balance: 1/5. Depth: 1/5. Finesse: 2/5. Rated: 86. Value $8. Land retail: $12. Cruise retail: $74 (that is not a typo). Music pairing: “Sea Of Love” by Phil Phillips. This is WAwineman… uncorked and cruising Alaska, vato!