Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tourism Day Eight: Skagway and the White Pass Rail

Monday, 2 June, 2014: a day I had been anticipating for months and months – ever since my seester had sent me enough money for my birthday to pay for a train trip. It was, in fact, the one thing she informed me I must not miss.

There had been two separate excursions available – at 9:30, and then again, at 11:45-ish. Knowing how likely it was that I'd be up late every night, I didn't think it wise to book the earlier trip, so I'd booked the lunchtime run up the hills. That gave me plenty of time, once I woke at an indecently early hour, to have a leisurely-paced and luxurious breakfast with a view of the train I would be taking,
My chariot awaits
followed by an easy fifteen-minute stroll from the pier to the town of Skagway.

I really did feel welcomed

Well, easy for most people. For me, it was a challenge, especially as it was sort of drizzling, making the footing faintly slick. But, since it was cool and damp, I was in heaven.

Along the path beside the road, the city had posted a sign encouraging people to enjoy everything Nature has to offer, there. I had to take a pic…mostly for the spelling error (or, was it deliberate?).

Pedal/peddle… It's nice to see that they encourage 
salesmanship over bicycling
I walked past most of the little shops, but I did, actually, stop in to see what postcards they had at the WP&YR book store and gift shop…besides post cards.
They had quite a bit of history
I found a book for Pop, a set of magnets for The Bat, and a couple of other items (plus, of course, some post cards), and, having had a pleasant chat with the store manager, I took my bag and wandered out to see the town.

I guess the early-20th-century architecture didn't really blow me away, and they had yet to open, that morning, the Red Onion Saloon and Bordello (which the boys were bound and determined to visit), I didn't take pics of the town itself. Well, not the buildings. Just the stuff which piqued my interest:
You know you're in trouble when this is your snowplow
I confess to being a foamer. Of sorts. I can't afford to follow my impulses very often, but give me the opportunity to put my grubby paws on a locomotive, or spend a night in a caboose, and you have me at "choo."
Seriously, cut through your snow in Virginia or Texas with this. Ha!
Well, after all, isn't the big draw for tourism today in Skagway that they have this rail excursion? The ships can't all be coming for the Red Onion…

Okay, well, maybe the scenery has a little to do with it.

Which is my other reason for booking the rail excursion. Besides being a train ride.

It wasn't cheap – it ran to $129 per person, when I booked. And, for a three-hour tour (a three hour tour!) that seemed a bit steep, initially. But my seester had told me it was a can't-miss, and she had paid for it, so, there I was, biding my time, hoping the weather cleared up enough to warrant the trip. After all, if the clouds are low and dropping drizzle the entire way up the slope, blocking my view of the landscape, there isn't much point to following my seester's instructions. 

But I was hoping I wouldn't need a refund. I wanted to brown-bag my lunch and see more of Alaska. 

And I wanted to ride that train.

Into the heart of town I went, to window shop some more, and to pick up the freebies and otherwise affordable items I could find for presents, now that the stores were finally opening for the day.  For the record, the people who work in those gift stores are well-informed, well-trained, very friendly, and, in a couple of cases, from Illinois. It was a lot of fun chatting with them, although I'm sure it would have been more fun for them if I'd brought them some hefty commissions. Instead, I brought home about $30 in stuff, not including the postcards and gear I'd picked up for the parents.

By 10 a.m., the clouds seemed to be breaking up, but so did much of my energy. I was shopped out, and needed to get back to the pier, to catch that train. I stopped in at the office of tourism and asked about procedures and costs for the local buses. The ride around town and to the end of the pier was a couple of dollars, easily accessible right out the front door to the office, there, and, at that hour, all mine. A few people were riding inbound, but most were still just strolling into town. I chatted with the young woman who drove the bus – she, too, had come up from the lower 48, for a summer job, and had been considering staying to become a permanent resident.

Small towns, no matter where they are, have a certain appeal.

Now we're rolling
Well, I made it back to the ship in time to get a little lunch at the buffet, then catch my train. The next three hours were a magical ride, punctuated by narration from the loudspeaker, giving snippets of history of Skagway, the Alaska/Yukon gold rush, the trail, the rail, and the geology. (Click on any picture to embiggen.)

Here are a few impressions from the ride:

There were many, many locomotives built, used, and, occasionally, lost on this rail run. Some of the best, classic ones have been rescued, and are either already restored or are in the process of being restored. # 52 was in progress as a restoration project.

Steam Engine 73 had already been run, this particular morning, and was cooling down in the yard as we went past.

Yonder lie locomotive parts. You may detect a trend, here

Just a reminder: my locomotive had a diesel engine. It's slightly less sooty.

We started our ride at sea level, where the stream widens out

gradually climbing

and climbing…

Well, that escalated quickly…we're nearing the mules' & horses' point of no return.
When they fell off the higher trails, there was no rescuing them.
Oh, good. A trestle bridge. That looks sturdy.
Unless Clint Eastwood is nearby with Eli Wallach.
And a lit cigar.
Please don't let me fall please don't let me fall…

And how darling! it comes with a tunnel!

Yippee. Another, bigger trestle bridge. 

Gulch. No foolin'. But that bridge…it's literally 100 years old!

Yeh, we're not crossing that.
We get another, newer bridge. And, oh, joy! another tunnel. 

We're nearing the top.

Small glacial lake. Rumor is, some tour guides skinny dip here in August.
I'm betting they don't have kids in May. Unless they're Scotsmen.

The pass narrows

Finally at the end of the line. White Pass station. Technically still in US, but semi-functioning RCMP/customs station.

The train's locomotive disconnected at the end of this line, turned around, and reattached at the other end of the train, so it could lead us back downhill (brakes on the front end! I like the logic of that!). We were given instructions on how to flip the backs of our seats, so that we could reverse our own positions, and still be facing the direction the train was heading, instead of being left to Look Back in Anger (see what I did there?).

At the same time, the pair of docents switched positions, too, so that the young woman who had been taking tickets and handing out leaflets on the way up, did the narration over the public address system on the way back down. Meanwhile, the young man who'd been talking all the way up, was now offering free bottled water and selling video, hats, and other souvenirs on the way downhill. I wouldn't have minded being able to get video or hat – or both – but I was saving my money for tea and memorabilia at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, come Thursday.

So I just continued to enjoy the view and take my own pictures.

Looking back downhill…

Heading back downhill…
Getting back downhill…

No horses or mules buried in the old city cemetery…
but maybe a coupla dawgs (wink wink)
Bit of the best graffiti…
there was plenty to see, near the shoreline
When I got back to the ship, there was enough time for me to get to my cabin & dress for dinner, but not much time to stretch out on the bed and relax…well, I'd have had to move this little guy that Adi left for me, anyway.

I moved it eventually. 
We set sail again from Skagway around 6 p.m., and we moved outward until sometime just after dark (somewhat past midnight), when we turned up into Tracy Arm Fjord, heading for a glacier.

Geology lesson: the round-topped mountains were
severely eroded away by glaciation.

The pointy-topped (sawtooth) were too tall from their uplift
for the glaciers build up enough to scrape them down.

Or so I'm told.
I was asleep for that turn. But I'd set my phone alarm clock to wake me by 5 a.m., so I could be up topside when we arrived at our great honkin' slab of ice. 

I was a little excited, so my sleep was fitful.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tourism, Day Seven: Juneau What Happens Next

Sunday Morning, 1 June, 2014. I was up at a little after dawn, having slept wonderfully in my nice, king-sized rocking cradle.

Saturday was still a little fuzzy in my head, since I had been trying to get my knees to develop into some part of a pair of sea legs, and that took quite a bit of effort – and a bit of chemistry.

I'm not much of a social creature, so, when events on the ship were scheduled, I made my appearances to satisfy my friend that she was not wasting her money dragging me onto a ship, but, to be honest, I'd have probably been just as happy on the ferry. Sure, the ship was big and glamorous (the length of two city blocks and change, with all the bells and whistles including an indoor and an outdoor pool, and a full-sized theater), and the meals were in a gorgeous setting,
The view from Breakfast, somewhat past dawn.
but, somehow, life in a floating mall/city was a little too much like my life in the urbs. There was a reason I moved back here to the dingles: I constantly crave solitude, even when it's bad for me. Crowds give me the shakes. (Individual strangers aren't exactly my cuppa, either, but I have learned to get by, there.)

I thought about taking a swim, because the looks on their faces would have been priceless…
True, there were places and times when the masses were thinned out, but, outside my cabin, I had more privacy in my college dormitory than I found here. That's to be expected. It's pretty much why I tried to politely let my friend off the hook for the promise she had made, to get me onto a cruise.

Sometimes, though, it's not a bad thing to let your adamant friends remain adamant. At least she's still my friend (I think. She has a very busy schedule, any more, what with a full-time job and full-time grad school). And, we got to see why my brother and his wife were so enamored of the largest of the United States.

I have to admit, the approach to Juneau is much more spectacular than that to my home town.

It's fan-damn-tastic! The hours it took to come the rest of the way inland, I was in awe.

I mean, just look at their open space!
We came into harbor a little before eleven a.m., and were allowed to debark less than an hour after that. They had buses waiting to take us to the touristy-business center, where all the souvenir shops were, and where people could make the connections necessary for their various shore excursions.

I had booked and paid for (in advance), a trip via tram to the top of Mount Roberts. My friend made arrangements on shipboard, to go up at the same time, with the young 'uns in tow.

Let me make another thing clear: I'm acrophobic. I get nervous climbing a two-step footstool. This, to me, was HUGE act of derring-do.

A hard climb for this view…because the ramp to the tram was, like, dozens of steps.

But at the end of the tram ride (not the very peak of the mountain – that was a hike I wasn't fit to take), I was well-rewarded for my steel nerves (heh).

A father and son team of artists were working on a segment of a totem pole, and took the opportunity to explain to the small crowd that the low man on a real totem pole was the most important character in the work, whether it was a story pole or one for a family.  

Father and son, demonstrating the art of totem carving. No smart-ass remarks. They were good.
After enjoying watching them work for a while, I tried to catch up with my companions, but, instead, found myself wandering the gift shop, examining (wait for it!) post cards. I did find a few nice, affordable gifts for family and friends, but also spent about $20 on those magical bits of archival photographic evidence that somebody had, once upon a time, been in a gift shop in Alaska. (Or, to paraphrase a more recent remark, "Postcards, or it didn't happen.")

I did explore the mountainside while my friends wandered up the trail. Among other things, I discovered a whole great honkin' mess of pine pollen all over everything, a greenish-yellow snow dusting the landscape. Plus, flowers. Lots of these little guys, surrounded by the nastiest-looking thorny brambles I'd seen outside my own psyche. I think somebody told me they were salmonberries. 
Salmonberries? Hmm. How do the fish swim up the mountainsides for them?
Anyway, flowers unofficially labeled, I took my postcards down the mountainside again, just about lunch time, and my friend, her nephew, and I decided to explore the souvenir shops, and see if we could use some of those coupons in our booklets. 

To some small degree, I wanted to slip away on my own, simply because I didn't want to keep hearing how [expletive deleted]ing cold Alaska was, as my friend seemed to have little else to contribute, at the time, to our conversation. But to a greater degree, I wasn't feeling all that hotsy-totsy, myself. Due to the stress of having tried to keep my balance on a moving deck, my knees were beginning to show real signs of strain. So, while they continued to prowl the shops in search of bargains, I texted my friend to let her know I was heading back to the ship, for my favorite pain-killing drugs, and lunch.

When I arrived in my room, Adi had left me this surprise:

I felt almost guilty moving it over to the chair, to let it sit while I took a short nap.

When I awoke, I peered out the window to see a parade of small float-planes landing. I felt almost as giddy as when I was still very small and my parents would take us out to sit beside Midway Airport in Chicago to watch the big jets come and go. I think I waved at every plane. Of course, I may have been dreaming that part.

Where is Herve Villechaize when you need him?

While I waited for the rest of the gang to return, I spent another half hour soaking my poor legs in the hot tub – this time, out on the open sun deck, and not by the indoor pool. The cool air was refreshing as I got out and made my way back to my cabin, to dress and ready myself for supper with the gang.

After supper, all I really wanted to do was to enjoy the scenery as we floated past it. Fortunately, since we were far enough north to have vestiges of daylight until roughly 2 a.m., I had ample opportunity to do that. Still, at the request of my friend, I did attempt to make it through the evening's stage show. As I recall, it was a musical performance, and…well… I can't recall much. I must have been very tired.

We floated past a LOT of this sort of scenery before dark finally fell…
Also, I had booked a train ride to take in the morning. So I did, actually, get to sleep before dark.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tourism, Days Five and Six: Hurry Up and Wait, to See the Sea

Yeah. The scenery.

The day didn't start out too badly.

A plate filled with…license.
We had breakfast here, surrounded by license plates of all states and a few foreign lands, but not much in the way of customers.  They did a nice job of getting my very fussy order right (it was the last meal at which I was concerned about sticking to a health-based plan. The rest of the trip, I piled on the medications in order to gorge myself).

They also served the boys a couple of beers each, with their eggs and bacon, during which, at first, they looked as though they were doing something bold and new and, somehow, scandalous in front of dear old Auntie. I told them of the time I had run out of milk and poured the last can of cruddy beer onto my puffed rice cereal.  It was, I said, the loudest breakfast I had ever suffered. They were suitably impressed…or, maybe that look on their faces was horror. I'm never sure, when it comes to tipsy young men. My friend, it seems, held her judgment in reserve. But she also, generously, paid for all our meals. I covered the tip. It was about all I could do, at the time.

At any rate, by about 8:30 a.m., we were back on the road again, enjoying the ubiquitous traffic standstill.
This pic may be from the day before. I can't tell – all Seattle traffic jams look alike, to me.
The fifteen mile trek from our breakfast stop to downtown Seattle took, as expected, an hour. It was worth it, though, to pull off the major thoroughfare and onto the overpass to the pier, to see our ship front and center.

Well, right behind the smaller, more interesting craft which was, actually, front and center.

Ummm. Behind the building behind the smaller, more interesting craft which was, actually…well, you get the drift. It's the liner with the coat of arms on its stack. We were looking at the Rhapsody of the Seas, on her first Alaska voyage of the new season.

Some research vessel, then us, then a Carnival ship…all ready to set sail
We were directed to the gimpy section for unloading and cruise prep, at which point my friend and the boys tossed things about, with wild abandon, trying to get those things not going with us to fit into the cab of the truck.

While unloading our luggage from the truck, I'd realized that I was not going to have the muscle power to carry everything I wanted, and didn't want to dump on anybody else, so, for a moment, I hesitated, and left the bag which held my exercise "bicycle" in the pile of stuff to stay with the truck. My friend asked me if I were sure I wanted to leave that behind, and I shrugged, indicating, no, I was not sure, and wanted advice. She told me to take it, so I said, "Okay," but, somehow, as she pulled he truck away, to take it back to the Motel 6 parking space, my pedals were not there with the rest of my luggage. I was going to have to do without my toy to help me unkink my knees.

Naturally, when my friend returned – two hours later – she told me I should have brought the "bike" with me. One of the boys could have carried it. Yeh. Thanks for that.

As we were trying to settle in, I learned that, during our winters, the ship heads for the southern hemisphere, and takes Australian cruises, then comes up to hit the waterways of Alaska at the end of May. The crew goes, of course, where the ship goes, with a six-week break each year to see their families back home (most in the Philippines, Indonesia, and peninsular Asia). I didn't ask about pay, but I hope it's a hefty check, for all that. Certainly the young man who tended to my cabin, by name Adi, was worth every penny I wished I could have paid him (sometimes, it really stinks to be mostly broke).

At any rate, when we arrived at our cabins, initially I had mine on deck three, directly above my friend, her niece and the boys. I may have already mentioned this, but I had offered to share, warning the group that, (1) I snore very loudly and, (2) I need the thermostat in my quarters to be set at effing cold in order to sleep, otherwise my middle-aged night sweats rule my moods. Naturally, I had nobody leap at the opportunity to share with me. That suited me fine. I had a very nice, large, fully-accessible cabin, near the center of the ship.

Before we got underway, though, my friend called me to ask "How many beds does your cabin have?" I looked carefully, confirming that it had a pair of twins pushed together to make a single king-sized bunk. There was also a love seat and matching chair, a coffee table, a desk chair, and two end tables. I thought about describing them to her, but refrained from doing so. She announced that she was coming right up. She sounded more than miffed.

When she arrived, she looked more than miffed. "Your room is bigger." Huff. Pace. "Will you trade with us?"

Sure. No problem. I don't need a lot of room for sleeping. I'd have been happy with a bed in the head, if necessary.

So, she took our key cards to the hospitality desk, where she had them switch us around and issue us cards according to our new locations.

Except that, my card no longer got me into either room. It took five tries before they finally got the thing to work. My leg hurt, I had no way out, and I was near tears. Fortunately, my friend's niece was kind enough to do most of the leg-work, fetching the key card and giving it the necessary testing, each time it came back to us.

In the meantime, we did a lot of sitting and waiting.
Waiting. And sitting.
While I waited, we had the passenger muster, where we were to all gather at assigned locations near the lifeboats…a watery fire drill. Not sure I would ever get into my cabin, I nevertheless went to the lifeboat I might just be climbing into for sleep, that night. Well, if it hadn't been well-covered and way the heck above the deck. My cane and I were getting tired of standing around and wondering if, maybe, I shouldn't just jump overboard and walk ashore.  But once the "all clear" was signaled, we were under way, and that wasn't the best option, any more.

At long last, I managed to get into my new accommodations, at which point Adi and crew had already shifted the furniture around to match what had been in the cabin directly above, and he sort of shook his head. I'm not sure if he was simply perplexed, or even a little bit laughing as he quietly asked, "They have the cabin just above?" He pointed to the ceiling. I nodded. "I think they're exactly the same room."

I looked around for a second and said, "Well, I didn't bring my tape measure, but I'd guess you're probably right. Except that the other cabin has one big window pane, and this one has…"

One for each eye.

 "…a split."  Not to worry. I had anticipated spending most of my scenery-absorbing time up on one of the open-air decks, taking in the brisk northern Pacific air. And, under normal circumstances, when I take a picture out a window, I don't sit 'way back, but press my nose and the lens right up against the glass, so as to get as much of the view as possible.

And, now, I had a bonus: I was practically right down at sea level. Out my little ole windows I could practically see the fishies laughing at us. The only people below me were the crew. We were the water babies. If I could have opened the porthole, I'd have reached out blissfully and felt salt water slap against my skin.

I had an hour to rest and unpack, before we were to meet and eat.

After supper (sorry, no pics of the buffet. I was too hungry, and it's hard to carry a camera plus a plate, while still leaning on a cane), we took in the welcoming committee show, performed by regular members of the crew, followed by rest. Rest and relaxation. Meanwhile, the ship passed through Puget Sound

Being of Sound mind…
and eventually made its way out upon the Pacific Ocean. Friday shipboard didn't end too badly, then. Just the middle was messed up.

At dawn of the first full day asea, I checked our status on the television in my cabin:

How did we pass Nanaimo without I got a Nanaimo bar?
We still had some time to go. The entire day, all we saw of the great northern scenery was
We saw the sea.
ocean. Plenty of ocean.

We ate buffet for breakfast and lunch, and I over-ate, as anticipated. In the afternoon, I attended part of an event at which one of the social directors explained the shore excursions and how to book them (I'd done so through our travel agent and online), and then another told us how to get HUGE BARGAINS ON JEWELRY and other items, using a booklet that they'd be giving away at the door, a little bit later. I got my booklet, listened briefly to the instructions, and, suffering sensory overload again, made my way to a quiet deck to watch
What did we see?
the ocean. 

Late in the afternoon, I got a call from my friend's niece, asking if I were interested in meeting them at the indoor pool, so we could sit and soak in the hot tub. "Twist my arm," I replied, and was washed and ready to soak in fifteen minutes. We had the company of a couple of very nice (and, in one case, very attractive) men. I didn't participate a whole lot in the conversation. (It sort of sucks to be tongue-tied around strangers, especially when words come so fluidly on a page.)  Eventually, though, the men went back to their wimmen folk, and we  three wimmen folk dried off and got ready for dinner.

My friend had made reservations for a regular, sit-down dinner for every evening, so we sat together for truly delicious food (I had a different type of steak each night, because, no matter how daring I felt, anaphylaxis due to ingesting seafood was not on my list of cruise adventures). After the feast, we saw another show on the ship's main stage (the theater actually seated more than the old Rivoli movie house, here in Monmouth). And then, while the rest of them aimed to spend some time and money at the ship's casino (the only deck where smoking was allowed), I headed back down to my cabin to listen to music, rest my brain, and watch the sun set across the… 

We saw the sea
 Pacific Ocean.

It took a while. We were, after all, in northern waters, only a few weeks away from the summer solstice. But by jingo, I stayed up to see the sun set.

On the sea.