Took me long enough, but the Alaska photos are now up on the website in the photos section.
Weather in Fairbanks was still prety dreary today, but at least most of the rain moved out so we were able to get a few things done.
One of those things I just figured we kinda of had to do while in Fairbanks was make a stop by the spot where you can see the Trans Alaska Pipeline. There’s a small turnout along one of the roads to the north-east of Fairbanks where you can get up close to the pipeline. There’s even a gift shop where they sell pipeline shirts that are only sold there.
From there we tried to work our way over to our next stop without taking the main roads. We kinda like to get off the main roads and explore the back ways a lot. This did turn up an unusual site in this case. As we’re driving along, all of a sudden just off the road we ran across an old airplane that had been partially dismantled. Not entirely sure what it was, maybe a DC-3 or something, but it was just there by the side of the road. Definitely not something I’m used to running across.
When looking through the various brochures we’d picked up, one thing we discovered was that we were just on the front edge of the peak time period for sandhill cranes to be migrating through. So we decided that we’d brave the occasional rain shower and try swinging by there. Turns out this wasn’t a bad choice, because there were indeed a large number of sandhill cranes hanging out in the field (along with lots of ducks). Viewing even from the areas near where you park were pretty good. In fact, we wandered one of the trails to see if we could get a better viewing, and on that day we actually just ended up further from most of the birds (although I’d bet on some days it’d be worthwhile). We even caught a couple of the cranes doing their dancing.
With our flight late in the day, we still had some time to kill, and with dreary weather and no real plans, we decided to take off down the road to where they had to build a special suspension bridge to take the pipeline over the Tenana river. Turns out it was a pretty scenic drive, often with viewpoints overlooking the Tenana River along the way. Also passes not too far from the runway at Eielson AFB, which is amusing, because there’s a long stretch of the road that has signs warning you not to stop or take pictures in the area. That’s kinda amusing, because while you can certainly see some of the planes from the road, quite frankly, you can really get more info from the Google Earth view of the place.
Finally it was back to the airport to turn in the rental care and wait for our flight out. Our flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage ended up being fairly late, and we barely made the next flight we were on.
All in all, a pretty good trip.
Ok, well, I have to admit, after a pretty good trip so far, we’re finding Fairbanks to be something of a disappointment. Doesn’t help that it has rained all day, which makes it a little harder to do a couple of the things we had planned. Now, I’m sure Fairbanks isn’t arguing with the rain, because they’ve had issues with fires in the areas around town, but hard to do much outdoor stuff when it’s a cold drizzle coming down.
In the morning as part of the tour package we had a riverboat trip. The trip was ok, but nothing really to get excited about. First they had a pilot demonstrate taking off and landing from the river near the boat. That might have been more interesting if we hadn’t already seen plenty of float plane flights in the last couple of weeks. But since we had, about the only real excitment was trying to decide if he was going to clobber the ducks or not. Then further down the river we stopped near the kennels that had been Susan Butcher’s and her husband demostrated dog sledding (she died several years ago). By now we’d had several demonstrations, so nothing really new here. Finally it was the stop for the indian village, although they did most of their demonstrations on the boat because of the rain, then let us off to wander around. Oddly, even though they claim it’s very unusual to get this much rain, they had plenty of umbrellas to hand out. Oh, and this isn’t a small, intimate little riverboat cruise either. The boat seats 900+ passengers.
Next it was time to pick up the rental car from the airport. Turns out the Lodge actually had a free shuttle that could take you over there. (Don’t think they’d do it if you had luggage, since then Princess would want to hit you up for the transfer fee, but for a single person just headed there without anything it was no problem.) With the rain, we didn’t really want to do much that was outdoors, so we swung by the Fairbanks visitor center, then headed down the road to North Pole, Alaska, and visited the Santa House. Yes, it’s about as bad as it sounds, but then, we have Bronner’s in Frankenmuth, so it’s hard to point fingers. (But Bronner’s is far bigger).
Finally, it was back to downtown Fairbanks to wander around some of the shops there. Downtown Fairbanks, well, it’s not exactly the most exciting place in the world. Its kinda run down somewhat. An art gallery that had been mentioned to us was there, but it was selling everything off after 30 years in business and going under, and quite frankly was probably one of the better shops there, so it’s not looking like it’s going to improve real soon.
Finally, we ended up heading back to the Lodge to have dinner (largely because we weren’t exactly inspired at what we were seeing as choices around town). Considering I had prime rib I won’t even say that it really seemed too badly over priced (although it would get bad if you started ordering appetizers or salads). Then it was time to start thinking about getting some headway on the packing, since late tomorrow it’s time to head back home.
(Oh, and we finally have neighbors, so we’ll see how that goes.)
Had to check out of the hotel by 11am this morning, which was kinda annoying. So we did that, then checked our carry on luggage at the lodge, and went to catch the shuttle up to the park so we could watch the dog sled demo they run. When you first get there, they give you some time to wander around and see the dogs, which seemed like the laziest sled dogs we’ve ever seen, they all wanted to just lie around and ignore everyone. Then we watched the demo, which pretty much consisted of about 25 minutes of talk and about 5 minutes of demo. Might have been somewhat more interesting if we hadn’t largely seen and heard all of this from other sources already, but since we had, we were both somewhat underwhelmed by it.
After the demo, so we could try to kill some more time, we decided to take the Horseshoe Lake trail. Not too bad a hike, maybe 1.2 miles or so, although after the first .2 miles, it does lose about 200 feet of elevation. Going back up not so much fun. There was a group of rangers wandering around along the trail, apparently in the next year or two they’re going to work to make it a somewhat easier hike. Coming back up the trail, the trail cross the railroad track. I was a little ahead of Cathy at the time, and as I was crossing the track I head the crossing gates at the road just a little bit further down start making noises. Cathy ended up getting stuck on the other side of the train for a while, which actually stopped right where the trail crosses the tracks (the Alaskan Rail Road seems to have a lot of switches that have to be manually operated, and I suspect that’s what they were doing).
From there it was back to the lodge to eat lunch, then wait until it was time to head to the rail depot to catch out train to Fairbanks. They load you up on the shuttles at 3:15, you get to the depot at about 3:30, but then the train doesn’t arrive until about 4:00, so you do a lot of sitting around waiting. While waiting, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed like Royal Caribbean/Celebrity and Holland America both had better busses than Princess was using. And for that matter, after having watched the earlier train go through, and the one we were waiting on arriving, their rail coached seemed slightly larger and better too.
The first 30 to 45 minutes of the 4 hours to Fairbanks is fairly scenic, running through the Healey canyon. We spent most of that on the observation platform, which turned out to be at the back of the train. After that, you end up with mostly flatter areas, largely almost swampish, just not quite as interesting, although we did barely see a couple of moose (well, I caught a glimpse of them, Cathy didn’t).
In Fairbanks, we found out that oddly we were, as far as I could tell, the only ones from our rail car to be getting on coach C, which was headed to the Fairbanks Princess Lodge. Everyone else was headed to another lodge. Gotta be honest, the Fairbanks Princess Lodge seems to not be quite as nice as their Denali property. But then, I think we were also in a newer section of the Denali property, and there were sections of that one that didn’t look quite as nice either. And oh joys, a room with a connecting door. Thankfully we haven’t had problems with noise so far, but then, apparently they’re not quite full tonight, but will be full tomorrow.
Up early for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. Before leaving, headed across the street to get some sandwiches from Subway for lunch, since I’d heard what they give you as a box lunch on the tour (Some bread, reindeer sausage, cheese, a granola bar, and a bottle of water). We managed to snag seats at the front of the bus, which was nice because we could see out the front window.
Our first sighting of the morning was a female moose near the side of the road munching on the bushes there. Was a little tough to make out because she was somewhat behind some small trees too. Then we saw some Dall Sheep, although those were largely just white dots way up the sides of the mountains. Also saw some caribou, which were also a fair distance from the road.
Then, while we were in an area that was pretty well known for bears, we saw what the group at first thought were a couple of moose up the hill, somewhat hidden by a ridge. Our guide thought it was an odd place for moose, and sure enough, after looking a little longer, it was actually a couple of grizzly bears, which we could largely only see the backs of. Unfortunately, with where they were, there just wasn’t a way we were going to be able to see them, so somewhat disappointed, we journeyed on for a bit. A little further down the road though, and we did much better. A mother bear and her two cubs were on the hillside, in a
far better location to watch them. We were able to watch these for a while, although they never really came close, but they were near enough to get a good view of.
Then we saw a golden eagle, perched out on the side of the hill in one spot. Also a ways away, so not real easy to get a great view of. Then, at a place we stopped, had a fox run by some of the people fairly close. We didn’t happen to see it until it was further away, but still could see it well. Shortly after getting back on the bus, another fox ran across the front of the bus. This one was colored differently, with a lot of brown in the fur.
Finally, as we’re starting to get a chance to see the mountain Denali, it’s looking promising that it might actually be visible (which isn’t necessarily that common in the summer). So we dash up to the viewpoint that’s best (which also happens to be our turnaround point) and sure enough, Denali is almost completely cloud free, and made for a great photo chance.
Didn’t really see much wildlife on the way back out, other than a couple of foxes (one of which might have been the same one we saw when we’d stopped earlier). All in all, a decent tour, and most of that wildlife would not have been seen without upgrading from the Natural History Tour that Princess sells as the standard tour on this land package. The TWT is long, but definitely a better choice.
Up pretty early this morning to catch the train to Denali. We were supposed to be in the lounge for departure by 7:10, although we didn’t end up getting off the ship til closer to 7:40. Princess seemed to somewhat drop the ball on this, because apparently we were supposed to have boarding passes to get on the train, and nobody did, so they were giving us little post-it notes with our assigned table. Decent but long train ride (about 10 hours). Did happen to see a bore tide just as our guide was talking to us about them, that was kinda neat to see (basically, the tide coming in as a long wave that runs all the way up the
inlet). Food was fairly pricey on the train ($5 for a cinamon roll, $11 for a cheeseburger). Kinda amazing just how tired you can get when you sit on a train for 10 hours doing nothing.
Get in to Denali and it seems Princess screwed up again here. A very significant portion of those arriving had keys that didn’t work on their doors (including ours). Thankfully we managed to get it taken care of relatively quickly, but I suspect some people were waiting a while. Luggage had managed to arrive in the rooms though, so that’s good. After getting into the room and dropping stuff off, went out in search of some food. Ended up eating at the pizza place at the hotel. Crowded, so getting a table was tough, and very pricey ($30 for a 12″ pizza, some breadsticks, and 2 drinks). However, the pizza was actually pretty
Then it was off to get to bed at a reasonable hour, since our Tundra Wilderness Tour was scheduled for 6:30 the next morning. Ugh.
Most of this day really qualifies as a day at sea, then with some scenic cruising in College Fjord conveniently timed to line up with the dinner hour. Unfortunately, it also means it’s the day to pack things up, since it’s get off the ship early tomorrow morning. So we spent a while in the early part of the day gathering everything together into the separate suitcases, 2 of which follow us to Denali, 2 of which we’ll see again in Fairbanks.
College Fjord wasn’t bad, with several glaciers that reach the water. Ice conditions were good, so we made it all the way back to Harvard Glacier, which is quite impressive. It also was fairly active while we were there, with several chunks calving off. Unfortunately, the biggest of those was while we were still headed straight at the glacier, and we hadn’t thought to head up front on the ship, so only could sorta see it. A fair amount of other pieces falling, but nothing quite as big. Bunch of seals hanging out near the glacier, and on the way in and out we did see some otters and some porpoises.
Tomorrow morning it’s get up way too early to catch the train to Denali. Something like a
10 to 11 hour train trip.
Well, the Patter indicated that we’d be able to start seeing things as early as about 6AM. Well, looked out the balcony door at 6AM, and about all we could see was a wall of fog. Cleared up a bit later, and by the time we’d really entered the park proper things had largely cleared out. Not a whole lot of ice in the water, so we were able to get in, visit Marjorie Glacier, then get far enough in to look down towards another glacier near the end of the fjord (name of glacier escapes me right now). As we got close to Marjorie Glacier the ranger acting as spotter at the front of the ship indicated that he saw a bear off on the side, but nobody else had any luck spotting it. Saw a couple of seals or otters near the glacier (hard to tell which they were).
On the way out, heading through Icy Straight, saw more humpback whales. Also saw a few otters with their heads and feet sticking out of the water. Shortly after Icy Straight we hit another fog bank, so didn’t see much else in the evening.
Skagway today, and yet another early morning. We’d booked the 7.5 hour Yukon by train and bus tour through Chilkoot Charters, and had to meet at around 7:15 to get a ride to the train. Met up with Mike, who was to be our tour guide for the bus portion, but for now he was just dropping us off for the train. The train was pretty scenic, although we did find that since it’s a narrow guage train, the cars were a little narrower, which made the seats a little narrower. Train ride was a couple hours long, leaving a dark and grey Skagway morning, but when we cleared the pass, ended up in bright sunny weather. Got off the train in Fraser, BC, then continued by bus up into the Yukon territory. Had lunch at a place called Caribou Crossing, which is probably starting to turn into something of a tourist trap, although the lunch was pretty decent. Cathy also got a chance to see the husky puppies there, although this time of year, the puppies are starting to get a bit bigger. You could do a sled dog ride here (using a cart), but we didn’t, just watched them. Was pretty impressive to see them pull a large cart with several people on it.
From there we visited Carcross, and then headed down the Klondike Highway back to Skagway (where it was still fairly grey and cloudy). Spent some time wandering around town and visiting stores. Checked out the cliff face near where we’d docked, where ships would traditionally paint their name and the name of their captain when they first visit Skagway.
Juneau today. For the morning, we’d signed up for a whale watching trip through Orca Enterprises, and on the walk to their offices, a couple hundred yards from the ship, saw a bunch of people looking up in the trees. Sure enough, up there was a bald eagle sitting right above the road. It took off shortly after we spotted it, so we headed on to check in. We ended up with Captain Larry as our captain, who looks exactly like you’d expect for someone that’s spent his entire life at sea, and Jeff as our naturalist. Headed out looking for whales, and after a while found a spot where we were the only boat looking, but sure enough, we ended up with at least 4 or 5 whales around us, in all directions. One of them even surfaced right next to the boat.
After watching those whales for a while, we then headed off to a spot where there’s been whales bubble net feeding for a while. And they were indeed still there doing it. There were a couple groups, and the one that was closer to us was a bit inconsistent, but we did get to see one really good look at them doing the bubble net feeding.
After that, we’d arranged for them to take us to Mendenhall Glacier and drop us off there. The advantage of doing that is that you don’t have to go all the way back to where the cruise ships dock, but they do only give you about an hour before they pick you up again, and that’s probably just a little short. Didn’t see any bear, but some people in our group back to the ships did say they heard bears, and there was a section of trails closed that might have been because of them. There was also evidence that the bears had been feeding.
After the tour, headed back to town to do some shopping. Eventually made it back to the ship. While sitting in the hot tub that evening, watched a bald eagle fly over the ship, then settle in one of the trees on the hillside near the ship. Was able to watch that bald eagle for quite some time from my balcony. Every now and then it would take off and fly around for a bit, then land back in the trees. At one point, saw as many as 3 bald eagles flying around at once.