RESEARCH & EARLY BOOKING ARE KEY TO GETTING THE MOST FROM ALASKA CRUISE

by Laurie Millman and Martin Rubin

Planning the excursions for the in-port days on an Alaskan cruise and for the optional hours available on the inland cruisetour can be daunting, as we found out when planning for our 12-day cruisetour on Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium last summer. In fact, the list of our cruiseline’s five-port options covered over 50 pages. The good thing is that there is a lot to do at every stop, whether it is shopping, hiking, or kayaking; helicopter or plane rides to glaciers; summer dog sledding or whale watching; bear searches or salmon bakes. As the optional tours are usually limited to small groups and fill up quickly, they should be booked as early as possible, either through the cruise line or directly with a private tour company.

As we stood on our balcony on the Celebrity Cruises' Millennium, we were so close to Hubbard's Glacier that we could hear the continuous, eerie sounds of the cracking ice. We were also lucky enough to see some amazing examples of "calving", where large pieces at the front of the glacier break off and fall into the water (© Laurie Millman/news-photos-features.com).

Identify interests and mutual goals for the trip. We ended up ruling out helicopters, small planes, and water sports. The short list included: viewing black bear, moose, caribou, bald eagles, and marine mammals in their natural habitats; experiencing a dog sled ride and hugging an Alaskan huskie; seeing a glacier up close (but we didn’t have to walk on one); and speaking to Alaskans to learn how they survived the winters and what kept them there.

For personalized excursions, look for tour companies that are privately owned (and usually guided) by native Alaskans or long-time residents who cater to smaller groups of twenty or less.

Utilize online resources such www.TripAdvisor.com for reviews and recommendations of tour operators. One of the best online websites we found for “expert” cruising opinions was www.cruisecritic.com. It is free to join the web site and participate in the online forums. In fact, many ships extend the Cruise Critic interaction by organizing on-board meet-and-greet receptions for guests who are Cruise Critic members. This forum was useful in answering our many questions.

For 2011 excursion options, pricing, and reservations, contact the cruise lines and tour companies directly, or visit their respective web sites.

Signature Alaskan Excursions

The first portion of our 12-day cruisetour was a fully escorted, five night inland tour in late August. The cruise-organized activities started out with in Fairbanks, Alaska with a high energy riverboat cruise with points of interest like an Iditarod-winning dog-sledding kennel and a reconstructed Athabascan village with young, well-spoken Athabascan interpreters (this river cruise was one of the highlights of our trip), and later panning for gold at an old gold mine. We traveled in our double-decker cruisetour train into Denali National Park, where we joined a park tour to get our first glimpses of Denali Mountain. The park tour offers vistas with distant glaciers, and photo ops of black bear, moose, bald eagles, and caribou in their native habitat. Days later, we arrived via bus and train into Anchorage. En route, we passed through landscaped covered with Sitka spruce and stunted black spruce which grow on permafrost soil. We drove through Sara Palin’s hometown, Wasilla, and stayed over in a small town called Talkeetna. While in Talkeetna, we ate dinner at the Wildflower Café, where we met the owner and chef, of who came to Alaska to train and participate in the Iditarod after working as President George Bush Sr.’s chef at Kennebunkport. From Anchorage, we traveled by bus along the Kanai Fjord to reach Seward, Alaska, where we embarked on our southward-bound, seven-night cruise to Vancouver, Canada.

Experiencing Mushing

Flight touring by small plane or helicopter offers visitors spectacular aerial views of Mt. Denali (© Laurie Millman/news-photos-features.com).

We had many opportunities to learn about dog-sledding in Alaska, even in the summer. Guests are brought to the training camps or kennels of award-winning Iditarod mushers. One of the first misconceptions that was dispelled during this trip was that dog-sledding Alaskan Huskies all look like the beautiful, black and white dogs we’ve seen in movies and tv. Rather, most are mixed breed dogs, bred for speed and endurance, with long bodies, long legs, and short hair.

In Fairbanks, we joined the escorted tour group on the Riverboat Discovery paddlewheeler (www.riverboatdiscovery.com) for a trip down the river. The boat slowed down and let David Munson, an expert musher and husband to Iditarod pioneer, the late Susan Butcher, speak about his favorite subject from his river’s edge Trail Breaker Kennels. David and Susan’s daughters continue to raise and train Alaskan pooches as sled dogs, as well as participate in events worldwide. Mr. Munson gave a demonstration of the control and speed of sixteen of his dogs tethered to a summer-rigged dog-sled. Many of Trail Breaker dogs are descendants of Susan’s winning lead dog, Granite. When we went on land to visit a reconstructed Athabascan village, David joined us to sign a children’s book for purchase that he and Susan wrote about Granite.

When we first arrived at the Denali Park dog-sled camp of four-time Iditarod champion, Jeff King (Goose Lake Kennel - www.huskyhomestead.com), his family handed each of us a 4-6 week old pup. We were providing important stranger-acceptance experience for these young pups as they nuzzled under our chins, shivered in our arms, or nibbled on our hair. This was an introduction to the very informative, hour-long talk about how Husky Homestead trains their 80 or so dogs. They also demonstrated how the dogs are exercised in rigged up contraptions that looked like pony rings or huge gerbil wheels. Jeff King also took out a sled to show us the explosive power of the dog team.

An experienced musher stood behind our six-person cart on wheels at the Musher’s Camp & Sled Dog Adventure (www.alaskasleddog.com). She directed sixteen sled dogs to pull the cart along a dirt path around the camp. The camp is about 40 minutes out of Skagway (you can also get there from Juneau). This particular camp trains over 200 dogs for racing in the Iditarod and other dogsled events. Our particular dog team seemed happy and allowed us to pet them after the run. Before we left the camp, we heard dog sledding anecdotes and held more Alaskan Husky puppies.

Following the Whales

Bald Eagles in Alaska during the summer are like crows or seagulls, elsewhere - they are everywhere. This one was spotted in Tongass National Forest (© Laurie Millman/news-photos-features.com).

The Alaskan tourist season isn’t just for humans. From April through September, the Alaskan Southeastern coastal waters are a mecca of sea life from salmon to whales. A variety of whales begin migrating in February from the warm waters of Mexico. Each Spring, Gray whales are spotted from Ketchikan to Seward on the way north to their summer feeding and calving grounds in the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. As summer progresses, other whales frequent the waters along the Peninsula and the Inside Passage. Beluga whales are seen year-round in the southern Alaskan waters – we saw their white bodies just off the coastline as our cruisetour bus drove us from Anchorage to Seward, where we embarked on our cruise south. Resurrection Bay near Seward is home to Orca pods from early May through September. June and July are the best months to see the Humpback whales using bubble-netting to feed. By late August, the Humpbacks are the largest population of whale species found in the bay around Juneau and in the Inside Passage. It is also common to spot Minke whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s Porpoises, and Harbor Seals from June through early September.

Although some of marine mammals can be seen from the ships while cruising, the best chance of spotting larger numbers of whales and other marine mammals is by taking a whale watch tour on a small boat with a local crew who knows where to find the whales. These tours can be reserved through the cruise ship or privately. We opted to book privately with Alaska Galore Tours (www.alaskagaloretours.com) in Juneau for two reasons: for one, they have a one hundred percent whale-sighting success rate since Alaskans Louis Juergens and Jamie Letterman started their company nine years ago. The second reason was that we spent the two and a half-hour tour on their new state-of-the-art, 18-passenger, custom built eco-tour vessel, complete with heated cabin and bathrooms.

As owner Louis guided us into the bay, his naturalist, Josh, talked about life in Alaska and the marine animals that live in the glacier-fed waters. The boat had ample room to view for 18 people, between the two outside decks and the inside cabin with its huge windows. During the cruise, Josh helped us locate over fifteen solitary Humpback Whales (no Orcas in this area) while Louis positioned us as close as legally possible. Josh described how to prepare for photo-ops by counting the number of times a whale would come to the surface to breathe before flipping its tail up out of the water for a deep dive (we won’t give away the secret number here). We also saw Harbor Seals swim by and warm themselves on the small islands that dotted the bay. Bald Eagles oversaw the bay activities from their perches on these little islands. Complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic beverages were available to us during the trip. Once back on shore, the Tour company’s shuttle brought us to the Mendanhall Glacier, where we spent the rest of the afternoon at the Discovery Center and hiked down to the glacier’s bay and nearby waterfalls. What a day!

For information about the Alaska Galore Tour sight-seeing and fishing excursions as well as their seasonal and group rates, visit their web site www.alaskagaloretours.com, contact them at 877-794-2537, or e-mail them at info@alaskagalore.com.

Hearing and Seeing “Calving” Glacial Ice

Glaciers are huge, actively moving ice fields that are melting away while they are slowly moving forward. Seeing the natural immensity of a glacier can take your breath away. As pieces of the glacier break away from the main body, they expose a deep blue color where the ice is so dense that only the short wavelengths of light (blue color) are transmitted back to us.

Glacier tour options offered by the cruise lines and through private operators vary in price and duration. Flight touring by small plane or helicopter offers visitors aerial views of Mt. Denali, the Inside Passage and glaciers. Flight tours are booked through the cruise lines or private companies like Air Excursions, which is owned by Alaskan Mike Loverink.

Dog sled family at Goose Lake Kennel, the Denali Park dog-sled camp of four-time Iditarod champion, Jeff King (© Laurie Millman/news-photos-features.com).

Many Alaska cruise ships also try to come close to a glacier’s leading edge, offering passengers a front-row seat without ever leaving the ship. Late last summer, our ship came within 1/4 mile of the five-mile long Hubbard’s Glacier. As we stood on our balcony, we were so close that we could hear the continuous, eerie sounds of the cracking ice. We were also lucky enough to see some amazing examples of “calving”, where large pieces at the front of the glacier break off and fall into the water. Laurie caught on video a perfect example of calving. Her video can be viewed at:www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxdsIxnKoDI.

Viewing Bald Eagles

Bald Eagles in Alaska during the summer are like crows or seagulls, elsewhere – they are everywhere. There are plenty of opportunities without a tour to see them in their natural habitat. We spotted them sitting on branches or boulders right alongside the roadways or up at the top of trees. The eagles’ huge, dark nests are a little more difficult to find, but we located some higher up in the trees. Juneau has a huge population, especially on the mountainside along where the cruise ships dock.

In Search of Black Bear and Salmon

Our cruise ship stopped in the bay just off of Chichagof Island in the Inside Passage, within the Tongass National Forest. the natoin’s largest rainforest, The Tongass National Forest most of Southeast Alaska, including the islands and villages along the Inside Passage. The heavily mossed forest and mountains are home to numerous bald eagles, bears, and spawning salmon.

A ferry carried a small group of passengers at a time to the small town of Hoonah. Hoonah is the home of the largest community of the Tlingit people, who have lived in the Southeast Alaskan archipelago for hundreds of years. We were picked up by Hoonah-born resident, expert bear tracker and naturalist, Keith Skaflestad, the owner of TECKK Outfitters (www.teckkoutfittersicystrait.com). We learned about Mr. Skaflestad from Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com) members who highly recommended him if we wanted to find bear so late in the season. Keith has been guiding tourists for over 15 years in search of bear in the Tongass Forest, as well as on game and fishing excursions. Unlike Keith’s few competitors who are not natives of the island, his extensive knowledge of the Tongass rainforest and his ability to track bear and other wildlife comes from growing up in Hoonah and having access to roads and parts of the Forest that are by permit only. He boasts that if anyone will find bear on the island, he is the one likely to do it. You’ll see later, that he kept his promise. Keith loves to talk about his village and his family’s role in its economy. Rightfully so — as we drove around town, he pointed out businesses owned by relatives, and remarked that, “Out of the 500 people here, I’m related to 400.” Keith’s Hoonah entrepreneurism also extends to a whale watching tour operation, a salmon fleet, and a small cafe.

A dog-sledding experience at Mushers Camp, Skagway (© Laurie Millman/news-photos-features.com)

Keith brought his young Jack Russell terrier, “Trigger”, for the ride. Trigger is training to be a “sniffer” for the game hunts. What other tour comes with your very own, albeit small, “guard dog”? As we drove along paved and dirt roads carved out by lumber companies, Keith talked about the forest’s old and new growth from an aggressive lumbering initiative. He pointed out numerous bald eagles in the trees.

During our search for bear, we had opportunities to see an Alaskan late summer phenomenon: parts of streams were completely covered from bank to bank with hundreds of salmon in the last two stages of their life cycle. Bright-red salmon with beaked mouths and humped backs had returned to their place of birth to spawn the next generation. Mixed in with the frisky fish were grey, lifeless salmon and those in the middle of this last transformation (turning from red to grey), whose bodies would break down within a week to fertilize the stream and create a nutrient-rich environment for their soon-to-hatch orphans. We were somewhat prepared for what we encountered in the streams, although it was still disturbing to us — before we embarked on our cruise, we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward (www.alaskasealife.org). Thankfully, there was an excellent exhibit on the life cycle of the five breeds of salmon, including the physical changes that occur as these amazing fish adapt from fresh water to salt water, back to fresh water, and finally to spawn and soon die. We were surprised that no matter where we saw throngs of salmon, there was no smell of rotting fishy organic matter.

While Keith led us along a beaver path covered in the soft, spongy moss of the Tongass National Forest, he enlightened us that it may be difficult to find bear along the streams so late in the season, as they have already eaten their fill of the fresh salmon. On the other hand, he promised us that he knew many spots and that we would not be disappointed. As we walked down to the stream, Keith gestured for us to be very quiet, while he pointed out fresh evidence of recent scat with berries in it, partially eaten red salmon, claw marks and hair on bark where a bear rubbed against the tree. He pointed to the other side of the stream, just in time for us to see something big behind the bushes moving away from us.

Keith drove us up to vistas high over the village of Hoonah and the bay where saw our docked cruise ship. As we drove up one of the mountain roads, we came upon a bear sow and her two cubs. They were large and round and beautiful, shiny coats showing healthy signs of a plentiful food supply. We can now vouch for Keith’s tracking ability – the bear encounters, Bald Eagle sightings, and the salmon-filled streams exceeded our expectations of our excursion with him.

Before we went back to the dock to catch the last ferry back to the ship mid-afternoon, Keith brought us to his café, “Grandma Nina’s Coffee Shop,” where we had delicious fish and chips for lunch. While at the café, we met Edna, his wife and the business manager for TECKK Outfitters. When you book privately, like we did, Edna arranges the reservations and Keith’s calendar. She stopped by to meet us on her break from the school where she teaches. As TECKK Outfitters is a small team of guides that includes Keith, Edna recommends calling her as early as possible to reserve a day with Keith or one of his other guides. She will also help personalize your day based on your interests. For more information, visit their web site atwww.teckkoutfittersicystrait.com. For reservations, contact Edna at 907-321-2673 or e-mail her atkeith_skaflestad@yahoo.com.

A dog sled camp in Alaska (© Laurie Millman/news-photos-features.com)

For the second tourist season, TECKK Outfitters is joining Alaska Galore Tours and Air Excursions to offer a tour package that is only available from Princess cruise ships — three Southeastern Alaska excursions in one economical, action-packed day in a small group atmosphere. The exclusive tour, “Whales, Bears & Glaciers Adventure” is a 6.5 hour tour set at a price that is more reasonable than booking each tour separately. The “Trifecta of Southeastern Alaskan attractions” begins with an whale watch tour guided by Alaska Galore Tours using their new boats. Last season, guests spotted Humpback Whales, Stellar Sea Lions, Dall’s Porpoise, Harbor Seals, Killer Whales, and Bald Eagles on the boat ride to Hoonah. Naturalists and bear guides from TECKK Outfitters in Hoonah take the group along a boardwalk trail that goes from a tropical beach area to a salmon-bearing stream in the Tongass National Forest. They will be on the lookout for bears and Sitka deer. The tour group returns to Juneau after a 30-minute scenic flight over the Juneau Icefield, courtesy of Air Excursions. The last portion of the tour offers aerial views of the Inside Passage, as well as Herbert Glacier, Eagle Glacier, and Mendenhall Glacier.

The Trifecta tour is available for purchase on all Alaskan Princess ships that stop in Juneau through late September 2011 as the “Whales, Bears & Glaciers Adventure” package (www.book.princess.com). The Trifecta can also be booked directly through Alaska Galore Tours for private parties of 12 or more guests. For private reservations and pricing, call 877-794-2537 or e-mail them at info@alaskagalore.com.

Friday, 18 March, 2011

 

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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