Cruising Alaska — glacier flights and Russian history


Pamela O’Meara photos/Review • Tarr Inlet, a geological feature of Glacier Bay National Park, as seen from from a sea plane. Glacier Bay National Park features glaciers and mountains and is the largest UNESCO-protected biosphere in the world.

Pamela O’Meara photos/Review • St. Michael’s Cathedral in downtown Sitka features religious art work and icons, and dates back to the 19th century when Alaska was under the control of Russia.

Pamela O’Meara photos/Review • Pamela O’Meara stands in front of a totem at Sitka National Historic Park.

Pamela O’Meara photos/Review • Ships lined up in the port in the city of Ketchikan.

Pamela O’Meara photos/Review • The Juneau glacier as seen from a float plane.

Bang, crash, rock and roll, rise and fall with the waves — these were sensations at the beginning of my first Alaskan cruise. 

The drapes were swaying and something was banging. I took a one-armed shower, holding onto a bar to keep from falling over from the motion of the ship.

After the first day the ocean swells diminished and the motion sickness patch behind my ear sufficed. Taking a cruise up the Inside Passage was a new experience in a part of Alaska I’d never seen before, and I planned to enjoy it.

 

Glacier flights

Our ship, the Eurodam, departed from Seattle in late May and after a couple of days, we saw mountains in the distance as we approached Juneau, the capitol of Alaska. We had our own deck with chairs and a table, so when there was something to see, we had a good view without having to go to the main deck. 

It was still overcast but the water was calm as we headed into the Inside Passage, a route amongst the islands that make up Alaska’s southeast leg.

Once in Juneau, we boarded a 10-passenger de Havilland Otter seaplane for a five-glacier flight over the Tongass National Forest. Armed with ear phones, we floated silently between the forest below and a heavy cloud layer above. One glacier was just rocks and gravel but we could see the pattern where the ice once streamed down. Our flight was followed by a tasty salmon dinner grilled out in the woods.

The following day we arrived in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. About 250 years ago the area was all glacier and no bay, a massive river of ice 100 miles long and thousands of feet deep. We sat mesmerized in front of a tidewater glacier that calved off chunks of ice that cascaded down to the sea, landing with a thunderous sound. It’s one of the few glaciers in the world that is still advancing.

I borrowed binoculars from a friend to see a dozen mountain goats in various spots on the mountains. I was a bit jealous — he also spotted four bears and a bald eagle.

 

The Russian connection

The next morning we pulled into Sitka, to explore the Sitka National Historic Park area, which was settled by non-indigenous people during the Russian colonial period. 

We hiked on a trail with many twisted old trees and a river running through the park. Here and there we saw large, colorful Tlingit and Haida totems. 

Back in town we browsed around inside St. Michael’s Cathedral to see the many gold icons and Orthodox religious artwork that dates back to the 17th century. The Russian history particularly interested me because some of my great-grandparents emigrated from Russia.

The Russian connection to Alaska dates back to the 1700s when the Russian Navy was commissioned to explore and map the country’s northeast coast. Their explorations landed them in what is now Alaska, and they realized that the fur trade could be profitably extended there. 

The Russians established a village named New Archangel, which became the colonial capital of Sitka, and the sea otter trade was lucrative. But by 1867 the otters were nearly extinct so Russia sold the whole of the colony to the U.S. for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka features the oldest collection of native artifacts in Alaska — tools, clothing and more dating to before the Russians were there.

We saw more colorful Tlingit and Haida totems and watched Russian dancers — a group called the New Archangels — twirling around and singing downtown in Centennial Hall.

After Sitka we pulled into Ketchikan the following day. It was sunny and beautiful. We took a six-passenger de Havilland Beaver floatplane ride out to the Oceanside Dining Room, where we dined on all the Dungeness crab legs we could eat. It was really, really, delicious. But it was quickly time to get back to the ship and enjoy our last evening on the cruise.

 

Departure

Departing from our ship was interesting. Our bags, except carry-ons, were set outside our door before midnight and we picked them up on the dock after breakfast as we were called by color and number — there were roughly 2,000 passengers heading to the airport from our ship. With all those people, it went smoothly.

With four hours left until my flight home, I sat in Delta’s Sky Club in Seattle, facing Mt. Rainier, which gave me time to think about my trip. 

The two flights over the glaciers were the most memorable. The food was good. So were the three classical concerts by a small group of musicians from Belarus. Guests and staff were from all over the world, which made the cruise very interesting.

Temperatures in Alaska were in the 40s and 50s, which I found pleasant. It was hard to imagine how miserably hot it was in the Twin Cities — about 98 degrees — a far cry from the glacier-filled Inside Passage.

 

– Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or 651-748-7818

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