Glaciers and Tundra and Bears, Oh My

ETSU 1998 Storytelling Cruise to Alaska

Glaciers and Tundra and Bears, Oh My

ETSU 1998 Storytelling Cruise to Alaska  on the Dynasty– Denali, Seward, Cordova, Prince William Sound, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchican, Vancouver.

Reflections by Mary Garrett

Too much to do and see (and eat), not nearly enough time (or sleep) on this adventure north.  For the first time, we found ourselves asking, “Now where will we be tomorrow?” and sandwiching class time in between exciting new sights and sounds, like glaciers and whales.  As Donald said, an odd thing to be complaining about, a trip that was too interesting.  I’ve tried to fall back on Perrin’s mantra of “just enough,” and while I really think we went beyond that in many aspects, we did have “just enough” friendship, sharing, and warmth (ours, not the weather’s).  Though we didn’t want to leave, we had perhaps “just enough” time to leave everyone wanting more.  I’ve already signed up for Storytelling ‘99!  Everything proceeded smoothly, no disasters, probably due to Marsh and Leonard’s good planning, helped along by Merle’s red travel blessing envelopes.

(7/18)  Donna and I began to realize just how far we were going on the flight up.  Of course, that was accentuated by flying Southwest — a hectic way to fly.  (We decided on the way back to avoid the competition for seating, hang back, and take what we got, which turned out to be the emergency row, with three people sitting backwards and facing the other three.  We renamed it the party row and had a great time visiting with our neighbors).  We had been warned that Southwest, in addition to not assigning seats, did not feed its passengers; so we brought along a little picnic of our own, which along with Southwest’s “snack pack,” proved to be more than adequate, leaving us with left-over snacks for later, and beginning the infamous “food box” that Marsh teased us about throughout the trip, as we collected all our leftover treats in the pretty box that held our snacks in Denali.   When we got home, we shared all those treats with Joy’s children — they were excited to get food from Alaska, even if some of it had started out in St. Louis.

Alaska Airlines was a civilized respite, with their Alaskan native painted on the tail of the plane.  Then a ride to the Big Bear B&B on the Borealis Shuttle, the driver complaining that it was “barely midnight and already getting dark” and giving a mini-tour of Anchorage as he drove.  I was especially tickled by the “whaling wall,” a mural of whales, and his story of the Orthodox Israeli who liked that joke so well he asked to get out and take a photo to take back to Jerusalem.  The B&B was lovely, full of beautiful Alaskan art, but we were so tired, all I wanted was to be tucked into bed (Mary Kay said her B&B host did tuck her in). 

(7/19) Breakfast was a real treat, and our hosts drove us to the train depot early in the morning for our trip to Denali.  I love the Alaskan Railroad!   It is such a pleasant way to travel, and the high school students acting as guides on board gave wonderful commentary on the way and seemed to be really enjoying their work.  We now all know not to go out on the mud flats, which act like super quicksand, and we looked for wildlife from the train windows as we went.  Views were excellent from every car, especially the observation dome, and even the excellent dining car.   Reindeer sausage is good, if you don’t think about Rudolph.   Several members of our ETSU group were on this tour, also, adding to the pleasure.

The Knightly Tour people drove us to our cute little Sourdough Cabins, and then provided shuttle service to supper (halibut for me — good stuff!) and then back in the rain (we saw a lot of rain on this trip!)  

(7/20)  Our trip into Denali began bright and early (5:30 a.m.), and was completely perfect!  (Well, except for the grumpy guy across the aisle from us — it became apparent why his wife was less insistent on a seat together than he was).  The sky was so clear that we saw Mt. McKinley all day!  (Many people had told us that only about 20% of visitors ever see the mountain because of the clouds).  It was magnificent!

Our guide was interesting and informative, and quickly taught us to call out “stop” if we saw wildlife, and to locate them (i.e., left side, 10:00).  It worked well, we saw amazing animals:  bears (including a mother with three 3-yr-old cubs and another with one 2-yr-old in close proximity), eagles (including two fledglings in a nest on a cliff and adults in flight), a moose with a calf, caribou with a yearling, lots of cute ground squirrels, ptarmigan, a fox with several ptarmigan in its proud little hunter mouth, Dall sheep, marmots, snow shoe hare, and mew gulls.  We had to keep all our snacks in the bus so our crumbs wouldn’t corrupt the animals’ natural behavior (we watched the ground squirrels eagerly licking up spilled hot chocolate — they obviously like people food).  The guide told us of an incident when overfed ground squirrels attracted a bear to easy food, the bear was trapped and moved, but returned three times; on the third return the bear was killed as a possible danger to humans, “All because people thought it was cute to feed the squirrels.” 

After the tour of Denali, we boarded a bus back to Anchorage.  Our driver was very informative, and I enjoyed his Kodiak Island accent (much like northern Minnesota, must have the same Norwegian background).  He gave us a thorough education on the types of salmon: King or Chinook, Red or Sockeye, Pink or Humpies, Chum (keta) or Dog, and Silver or Coho, and got us so ready to have salmon for supper, but there were only hamburgers and hot dogs on the menu where we stopped.  Sigh!  He made it up to us by reciting Robert Service poems to us — the best of all the R.S. we heard on the trip! I told him to look up the Anchorage storytellers and join up.  He also pointed out Wasilla (all I saw), where the Ididarot actually begins, since the water is impassable at the time of the race.

Back to Big Bear, and up very early the next day (Tues.,7/21) to take the train to Seward.  Our hosts got us to the depot late, barely five minutes before departure, and the husband took our bags to the bus station before our B&B buddy Rick Marshall straightened him out.  It was a narrowly averted disaster!  Once on the train, we were in storytellers’ heaven, with our own storytellers’ “party car”, and lots of free coffee (decaf for me) in our Alaska RR travel mugs.  We even saw Dall sheep closer than in Denali, not white specks on the mountain, but real animals with legs and everything.

When we arrived in Seward, Marsh and Leonard kindly took charge of taking a bus load of luggage to the ship so everyone else was free to wander.  We took the Trolley to the Sea Life Center, where we enjoyed seals and puffins, starfish, octopus, and especially the writings and drawings done by school children. We even took pictures of the men in scuba gear cleaning the inside of the seal tank.  (We also shopped!  I do more of that with Donna around . . )  

We took the trolley back to the ship about 4:00, found our cute little cabin,  and had the first of many excellent dinners with Rocky and Irma Rockwell, our table mates.  The dining room was beautiful, with many large windows so we didn’t miss any of the wonderful sights.  Roderick and Milton, of course, took good care of us, also.  Donna was impressed that Milton remembered that she drank milk, even at lunch the second day when we weren’t seated in their section, and he  always gave me decaf (I decided not to mention no chocolate; so I could cheat a little).  On the last night, I said I didn’t want to go, and Roderick offered to hide me in his locker — almost a tempting offer.   I would love to have a complete set of dinner menus among my souvenirs, but it I might make me too sad, now that I am back on Budget Gourmet.  

After dinner we had a brief intro meeting of our group, interrupted by the all-important lifeboat drill (weird life jackets, but perhaps designed to do a better job of keeping the head out of water).

The Dynasty  is a smaller ship, 800 passengers, and I liked the personal atmosphere, plus the fact that it was easier to find my way around.  Our group was approximately 1/8 of the passenger list, so it was like traveling with a big family.

We fit class time and story swaps in around shore time and sightings, feeling that we had a little less time together than we wanted, but still sharing, critiquing, and most of all learning from Donald how to better put together our stories.  (Normal world, Trouble coming, Crisis event, Outside help and New knowledge, New normal).  We talked about how to change the length of the story, spending less time on each “stepping stone” or making the story a quilt square rather then a whole king-sized quilt.  He also discussed the importance of a good master of ceremonies — introducing the teller and creating energy to enhance the experience for the teller and the audience.

The Kit Kat was the best classroom we’ve had yet, large, comfortable, and blessed with excellent windows for viewing the lovely Alaska scenery.  (The card room was a little less wonderful, but gave us a chance to prove we could tell anywhere.  I told Sherazade and Grandma’s Doughnuts there, and the Old People’s Wisdom story for critiquing).  We heard many wonderful stories, and I especially want to remember Priscilla and Duncan’s stories, and Chris’ story of his shaky beginning in life.

(Wed., 7/22)  This was the only stop where we had to use tenders — it is fun to ride in to dock, but it also makes debarking slower.  We saw a field full of small airplanes.  Cordova  has more airplanes per capita than anywhere — not surprising since boats and planes are the only way in.  We had a wonderful tour, which included Child’s Glacier up close and personal (while we snacked on home-baked goodies).  Donna and I were with the last hold-outs determined to see the glacier calving.  When the bus started and the guide said that was our signal to leave, we walked backward up the path so we could keep looking.  We were discussing the possibility of lying about seeing it when we heard an especially loud crash, ran back, and saw a huge piece of ice fall right into the water.  The resulting wave was quite impressive (surfing size if it weren’t so cold).  The driver heard us cheer and came back, too.  We also saw a sign depicting how high the waves had gone a few years back when they destroyed the observation tower and hurt several people, and we were advised that if we saw a really big calving to run away fast!  (Funniest tourist question:  “Can’t you clean up the glacier and get rid of those dirty brown streaks?” — the boulders scraped up by the glacier).

Later on at the Million-Dollar Bridge, broken in the 1964 earthquake, we were again the last ones out at the end of the bridge, and we saw more calving.  Sometimes it pays to be the last.  On the bus ride, we stopped the bus and several of us got out to see some moose, but they kept hiding behind brush — a good first hand look at moose defensive behavior — they didn’t know we weren’t hunters.

In the Cordova Museum, we saw interesting relics of early residents.  I especially liked a raincoat made of bear gut, sewn with seal sinew — all that sewing and work, and it would last about three months in use.  We got pins from the Ice Worm Festival, an annual winter celebration — carnival rides at 20 below –an attempt to  keep busy so as not to go crazy in the long winter.  Ice worms are real creatures that live in the ice; children dig them up and throw them at each other.  I also got a fireweed pin — fireweed was everywhere; it’s the first plant up after a fire, and when its flowers get to the top of the stalk, it’s six weeks until first snow.

Back on ship, we dressed up for the captain’s welcome party (Captain Tor Dyrdal — very formal gentleman).  I wore the ivory necklace Dad brought back from Alaska 50 years ago.  Our group shared stories after dinner, and then I stayed up for the Chocoholic’s Buffet, but couldn’t get Donna up for it (she was so much more sensible than I was about sleeping).

(Thurs, 7/23) Prince William Sound — We scheduled lots of class time, and then took breaks when it was time to stop for glacier watching, Hubbard Glacier, among others.  It was so very cold and windy, I was glad I had gloves, and that  Donna had gone back to our cabin for all our warm clothes.  The Captain blew the ship’s horn, which echoed delightfully, and caused repeated calving.  Donna was persistent in wanting to see a “shooter”  (underwater calving) and she did!  I got too cold, and went back in the Kit Kat, where we could see, but not as well.  We had a Tlingit guide on board during this time; she declared the passengers who wrapped themselves in blankets to be unofficial members of her clan, and invited us to run 11 miles across the glacier to her village.  No thanks!

(Fri., 7/24)   Skagway was also wet and cold — I broke down and bought a warm fleece top, and immediately felt much better.  The Lands’ End rain poncho did its job splendidly.  We wandered around, shopping, taking a ranger-led walking tour (hearing all about the notorious con man Soapy Smith — one shop sold Soapy on a rope), seeing the costumed drivers of the vintage touring cars, and wondering how they kept warm.  Then we took a bus tour to Liarsville, met the madam (she was hiring, but we passed that up), saw the sled dog, heard some Robert Service (with excellent, funny pantomime), and panned for gold.  I got six little specks of gold in a plastic zip lock, “just like the original minerXs used”).  The gold, of course, was brought in from Canada, since Skagway was just the beginning of the Chilkoot trail into the Yukon. In the museum we saw an example of the 2000 pounds of supplies each miner had to carry in before being allowed to cross the Canadian border.  They had to be crazy to try!  The husky we saw was part wolf, but we were told that doesn’t  make her wild or mean; it does, however, give her a very strong need for her pack, and huskies can die of loneliness if there aren’t enough other dogs and people around to interact with. 

(Sat., 7/25)  In Juneau we were treated to the day of activities that Marsh put together for us.  We teased her a bit, because the bus, which had a confirmed time of 8:15, did not come until almost 10:00.  There seems to be some flexibility in “Alaska time,”  except for the railroad.  Many of us just walked to town and (you guessed it) shopped.  I should also mention how pretty the shopping areas were in all these towns, with beautiful flower boxes and hanging baskets, I’m sure for the benefit of “visitors” (sounds friendlier than “tourists”) but also, I think, a result of being starved for color for that long, long winter.  (We were told keeping busy is the key to staying sane, but that supplies for winter crafts have to be bought during the summer when the shops are open).

We toured Juneau, and saw a school nicknamed the “penitentiary school” — its playground is surrounded by a 20-foot-tall fence to keep bears away.  We saw lots more small planes and boats, necessary to get to this capital.

We saw the Mendenhall Glacier — cold and huge; glaciers still seem more magic than physical science to me.  The park area is well-designed; our tax dollars at work.  They even had some glacial silt (or “flour”) for us to touch, smooth and gritty at the same time.  Five baby swallows  right by the path added to the fun. 

The Salmon Bake was terrific!  Finally, fresh salmon — and lots of other food, too — a veritable feast.  We were entertained by raven stories and stories of Alaska history by a wonderful woman who captivated even the non-story-tellers who just happened to be eating then.

Some people went back to town rather than pan for gold, but I’m glad we did it.  Our guide was fun, and we panned in the river, rather than a trough.  I put my first batch, from the dirt he had already filled the pans with (dug up “just over that hill”), in one vial, and then scooped some “free range” dirt from the stream and put that gold in a separate vial.  It was an adventure, but I don’t think I’d like bending over a cold stream like that on any sort of regular basis.

(Sun., 7/26) Ketchikan — and amazingly enough, sunshine!  That only happens there about 100 days a year — rainforest, after all.   Of course, we had to have sun at the end of the trip — to make us want to come back — and I do!!!

Donna and I explored a bit on our own, had lunch on the ship with an interesting older couple from San Diego (being able to zip back on board for lunch was one advantage of being docked at the pier), and then returned to the visitor’s center for a short bus tour of the town).  We did our random act of kindness by piling our stuff on a front-of-the-bus seat for an older couple who had been left behind the mad rush to the bus — one guy looked like he was going to try to challenge us, but then thought better of it.  At Totem Park, we noticed parking spaces “Reserved for Elders” and thought perhaps that kind of respect should be a more constant part of our culture.  The totems were magnificent, and the story of Seward’s “shame totem” for not returning to host a reciprocal pot latch was especially amusing.  The carvers had stepped out when we finally got into the carving hall, so we couldn’t ask about Daddy’s totem, but maybe we weren’t meant to know.

On Creek Street, we saw Dolly’s House on Creek Street, the only creek where salmon and men go to spawn.  We also saw salmon climbing upstream, and saw the salmon ladder they can use if they are too tired to manage the waterfall.  We also saw teens who had been swimming, too cold for us, but not for them.   There’s a covered playground at one school, so the kids can get out to play a little.  The sports field is paved with cement, and games are played even in the rain (“or we’d never finish a season”).  Hot dog cookers and microwaves are used to dry balls.  She also explained that they catch rain water for household use, and divert glacier run-off (all the pretty waterfalls coming off the mountains) for good, pure drinking water.

She took us to see the rain forest (and more kids who had just been swimming) and explained why cutting the trees would make them healthier, since in the constant dampness, they are rotting and being infested with beetles.  I’m not a forestry expert, but she seemed to make sense.  She also pointed out a nearby island with cheaper real estate, but no bridges, so you would have to do everything by boat, and in the winter the winds can be 90 mph, and the water is so cold you would die in 20 minutes if you fell in.  Doesn’t sound like a bargain to me. 

(Mon., 7/27)  Inside Passage –whales!  Too far to see, except with binoculars, but real whales, just the same — Shamoo on the loose!  It was thrilling (though difficult) to spot one in the binocs.

We had a hard time convincing the cruise director, John, that he should set aside a time and place for Donald’s public concert, but our nagging finally prevailed.  (Good thing, too — I was planning a major sit-in with all of us wearing our spiffy “Alaska Invasion” shirts and singing “All we are saying is, give us a room.”) Donald’s long-awaited concert filled the large Rhapsody Lounge with a very appreciative audience. (See, John, we told you so!)  We also got a first-hand demonstration of the power of good introductions, first John’s, and then Tracy’s excellent intro.

(Tues 7/28)  The Dynasty  docked in Vancouver, and we left soon after an early breakfast.  

Jody witnessed a final example of seeing whatever we talked about (previously demonstrated by animals in Denali and calving of glaciers).  She asked if they ever dropped any of the baggage into the ocean (They move impressive mountains of luggage onto the deck and then on carts across the gangway to shore).  Just after a crew member said “Never,” a woman’s bag went right over the side, then burst open and all her stuff floated away — what a disastrous end to her trip!  We decided to be very careful what we said from then on.

Our chartered bus ride to Seattle was pleasant, once we got Donna’s suitcase back from the woman who accidentally made off with it (once again thanks to Rick M. who sent her back with it).  Our driver entertained us with information and jokes (Conus roadis constructionis), once he recovered from loading all our luggage.  When we went through Canadian customs, we all thought positive thoughts, and were waved through.  Whew!  Good night’s sleep in Seattle (unlike the movie), once we found the right  Ramada.  I know there were wonderful things to do in Seattle, but they will have to wait for another time.

(Wed., 7/29)  The Southwest flight to Salt Lake City and then home was actually pleasant in the “party row,” enjoying wonderful views and interesting people.  Jessie and Al were waiting at the airport, and  then to Joy’s to hug those sweet children and give them t-shirts and snacks, and little gold centennial coins that they loved (Donna is a clever shopper).

Two good Alaska authors:  Velma Wallis, Two Old Women (based on Athabaskan myth) and Dana Stabenow,  Breakup  (and other mysteries)

Met on the cruise:  Priscilla Cogan; her book, Winona’s Web, is the most moving, spiritual book I have ever read.