First Class Steerage: Cruising the Semi-Frozen North

When most of us think of Alaska (which, let’s face it, isn’t often), we tend to picture wildlife the size of Hummers, all of which can kill you, subzero temperatures, which can kill you, ice bergs, which can kill you, and snow drifts bigger than a city block, which can kill you.

The perceptive among you may detect the faint traces of a theme.

All the same, adopting our best devil-may-care attitude, this past summer, I, along with my wife, two of my children, my mother, and a couple of family friends, flew from America to Canada, a foreign country, for the express purpose of visiting another part of America, a not- foreign country. It was once though, Alaska. It was a foreign country. It was part of Russia until 1867 when the US government, showing a level of astuteness not normally associated with the term “US government,” purchased it for basically a song and a handshake. Really. Russia agreed to sell what amounts to nearly 600,000 square miles of pristine land for $7.2 million, which comes out to less than two cents an acre.

Only because you asked, the Russian term for “sucker” is лох (lokh), but of course one does not gloat because that is unbecoming, so I insist you stop it right now.

Anyway, last July we found ourselves on Holland America’s Koningsdam, a cruise ship capable of comfortably carrying around 4,500 passengers, enough food to overfeed them, enough entertainment to overstimulate them, and enough alcohol that if Glacier Bay somehow sprung a leak and began to entirely drain, we could have refilled it. Holland America has been cruising Alaska longer than any other line, over 70 years. The tangible benefit to the cruiser is they tend to get the best docking locations in ports. The tangible benefit to the cruise line is they get to continually remind you they’ve been there longer than anyone else, well past the point where this fact interests you.

If you’re going to visit Alaska, there are two basic attractions: the land and the water. You may think that sounds sort of obvious and dumb, and you are sort of right. But the thing about the land is they have a lot of it up there. Like a LOT of it. Far more than necessary. Alaska is the largest state in the USA, with Texas coming in at second place. Putting it that way doesn’t really tell the story, though. Have you ever seen one of those Olympic swimming races where the first-place finisher so badly beats the rest of the pool that by the time second place touches the wall, the winner is already out, dry, and halfway through the first interview? It’s sort of like that. No kidding, if you were to split Alaska in half, Texas moves down the list to third largest state.

For the water attractions, Alaska has taken the inventive step of freezing just trillions of gallons and sprinkling it all over the place, even on land, in the form of what are called glaciers. These are rivers of solid ice that actually flow, albeit not at a blistering pace. Some of them move only a few feet a year and the water in them has been frozen for centuries. Due to immense pressure forcing out much of the oxygen, the ice takes on an eerie pale blue color. They are truly a sight.


Lest you think glaciers are your only option, they still have wet water, both the fresh and salty kind. The saltwater variety is loaded with whales, dolphins, crabs, and otters, while the freshwater kind, depending on which season you visit in, can be chock full of salmon, which means it is also frequently chock full of bears. More on those later.

If you’ve never been on a cruise, the boat leaves the starting port and heads out on a preplanned itinerary. On average, it stops at a new location about every other day with a couple of back-to-back port days. The rest are “sea days,” which means “days where if you leave the boat, you will drown.” While at the visiting port, some people stay on the ship, but most go out to see the attractions and sites. You can shop, sign up for and participate in various excursions, and try out local restaurants for the completely novel experience of overeating on land instead of overeating on a boat. While in the port, you’re having a truly authentic local experience, provided there are truly authentic locals who, after a day of responsibility-free leisure, go back to 4- and 5-star accommodations, free booze, and personal chefs.

We stopped at ports in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, and also spent a day in Glacier Bay, which is not only astonishingly beautiful, but is also a national park. At least on Holland ships, in the early morning they pick up park rangers, who spend the day giving presentations, narrations, talking with guests, and of course selling Glacier Bay National Park merchandise, just about all of which features amazing photos of local wildlife, none of which, I understand, are getting a cut. I’m not too savvy on artic image copyright laws, but someone should look into this.

Anyway, at one or two of these port stops, rather than staying on the beaten path, if you will, my wife had arranged private, organized tours for just our party. She’s able to pull that off because, among her other endeavors, she is what’s known as a “travel agency owner,” or, in layman’s terms, “elitist.”

No, seriously, with multiple disabilities in our group, it made for a much better experience for everyone. In Skagway, for example, we got to tour a dogsled training site and even take a ride with a dogsled team, despite it being July. The very nice lady who owns and operates the outfit has competed in dozens of races and knows her stuff. She’s come in second in the Iditarod and even won the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile race with absolutely grueling requirements, the first being actual insanity.

She has to keep up with the dogs’ training in the summer months, so when there’s no snow, she hooks a team of around 11 dogs up to a large ATV, puts it in neutral and away they go. These dogs LOVE their job. You’ve never seen a dog more excited to do anything than these guys were to pull that ATV, with six people in it, I might add. The scenery was breathtaking, too.

The owner surprised us by stopping maybe a ¼ mile into the route and letting the dogs all briefly jump into a small pond. I asked why such a quick stop, and she said the dogs needed to cool off. Now, bear in mind, it was about 50 degrees out and the pond the dogs jumped into couldn’t have thawed earlier than the week before. When I seemed puzzled, she pointed out the dogs are Alaskan Huskies, which means their ideal temperature is 0.

You read that right – 0 degrees Fahrenheit is their ideal temperature. I asked if she meant to run in. She said no, just to exist. So to them, running and pulling our heavy butts around in that temperature, though they loved it, was about equivalent to, say, a dozen of us dragging a ½ ton pickup through the streets of Phoenix in August.

I told her to please give the dogs whatever time they needed, but apparently the time it took to have that short Q & A was enough, because she hooked them right back up and off we went again. It was fantastic.

By the way, did you know it’s possible to run and prolifically poop at the same time? I didn’t either. The dogs have figured it out, though.

In Ketchikan, we had the pleasure of boarding the Aleutian Ballad, famously featured in Season 2 of the show “The Deadliest Catch.” I’m not kidding. Capt. David Lethin, owner and operator of the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour, spent several seasons on the show. He’s been a deep-sea fisherman basically his entire adult life, as have the other colorful fellows he talked into being part of a crab fishing tour experience he operates on a boat that was actually capsized by a rogue wave in the Bering Sea, repaired at the expense of an extremely grumpy insurance company, and then retrofitted to hold up to around four dozen tourists who get a crash course in what it means to be a commercial cold water fisherman.

This tour is a hoot on a grand scale. Each one of the old salts crewing the ship would undoubtedly be the life of any party you could conceivably throw, provided it didn’t involve tuxedos. Between them, they have more than a century of deep-sea fishing experience and can regale you with stories you would never tire of hearing. At least I wouldn’t.

One of the crew, Andy, I believe, was actually washed overboard in a storm once. He told us this while being, so far as I could tell, very much alive. He and the others explained how they bait 1,000-lbs crab “pots” and extract them from hundreds of feet down on the ocean floor. They showed us the various kinds of crab and other stowaway creatures they catch and, because that evidently wasn’t enough, drove us out to Annette Island, which I would estimate is home to around 115% of the world’s bald eagle population.

If you ever find yourself in Ketchikan, tell Capt. Lethin hi and no, I do not want to hold the octopus.

In Juneau, we went whale watching, which my wife booked for us but wasn’t personally thrilled about, because in her estimation, any “activity” where she isn’t physically acting or interacting is a waste of time. Bluntly, going on vacation with this woman is not relaxing. She believes there is ample time for that nonsense when you’re dead. In her view, if you aren’t thoroughly exhausted after a trip, you can’t prove you did anything worthwhile.

Nevertheless, she thought most of our group would want to see whales, passive though the outing may be, and so she booked it. And then it was anything but boring. Now, here’s a brief marine biology lesson to help you through the story. Humpbacks, like other whales, tend to go around in pods. That’s the term for a group of whales – a “pod.” This is different than, say, a large group of shrimp, which is called a “buffet.” Anyway, a pod of humpbacks tends to be
small, between 3-5 whales. You can think of a pod as a nuclear family where everyone in it weighs up to 40-metric tons. It turns out though that a lot of humpbacks don’t join a pod. They roam around solo. But once in a while, a large group of them get a little hangry and engage in what’s called bubble-net feeding. The guide, who had been out there seven seasons and said she’d only seen it a couple of times before, explained it. There are enormous schools of mackerel in the water, and what we witnessed were more than 15 whales (no one got an accurate count) cooperating in an organized snack run. They’d all dive deep, then as a group rush up toward the mackerel exhaling, which, because there are so many whales, creates a massive net of bubbles that forces the school to the surface. The whales then break through the water and swallow the fish down by the hundreds. This happened again and again and never got dull for a second.

Even my adrenaline junkie wife was grinning ear to ear.

On a final note, I did say there’d be more on bears later. Fine, have it your way. Alaska has essentially three kinds: the black bear, the grizzly or brown bear, and the polar bear. The pedantic might point out there is a distinction between grizzly and Kodiak bears. This is true. The distinction being that Kodiaks are a subspecies of grizzly that live on Kodiak Island. Happy? Did you really need to take up everyone’s time with that? This is why no one invites you to

Anyway, black bears are basically the racoons of Alaska. They’re so common and cause so few problems the locals barely notice them and frequently hunt them. They tend to gorge on blueberries as they fatten up for hibernation, so I’m told the meat is outstanding. Size-wise they’re the smallest up there by a long way. The males tend to weigh around 200 lbs in the spring. Grizzlies are another matter entirely. This is an animal that routinely weighs 1,000 lbs. with hardware capable of opening a car the way you’d open a can of soup. They’re true omnivores, as opposed to black bears which are basically vegetarians who dabble in fish. We’ve all seen the documentaries of grizzlies more or less eating their weight in salmon, but they’ve also been known to snack on caribou, deer, elk, and juvenile moose, as well as the occasional hiker.

If you’re anywhere on the normal tourist trail, those are the only kinds of bear you have even a plausible shot of seeing. We saw a black bear and a grizzly and are still here to tell you about it.

However, if you’re way, way, way up north, you could hypothetically encounter a polar bear. No one will ever know about it though, because 24-48 hours after your encounter, the bear will begin pooping parts of you out. Polar bears are exclusively carnivorous, can grow larger than grizzlies, and have an attitude like they’re the biggest, baddest meat eater on planet earth, probably because that’s exactly what they are. Remember the Coke commercials from a few
years ago, where the adorable playful polar bears are just snuggling, sledding, smiling at each other, and drinking sodas? It turns out Coke is great for washing down seals, walruses, beluga whales, and over-curious naturalists.

There’s more I could tell but I’m tired of typing and so I’ll leave you with this – even though I said earlier Alaska is part of America now, that’s both true and misleading. It may not be a foreign country anymore, but it is a completely different world.

And it’s a world you should see.


Ryan Durso

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