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So Long Alaska, And Thanks For All The Fish

So Long Alaska, And Thanks For All The Fish

Annnnnnd we’re done.

So ends our actual last long distance trip for what’s sure to be a while. Coming home this time, unlike the end of our New Zealand trip, is much more sweet than bitter. For starters, we were both pretty much done with the whole cruise experience this time. Unlike the last time we went cruising (over five years ago!) this was much less of a relaxation tour.

Rather than spending our days relaxing on the sundeck of the ship or some tropical island, this trip involved bear run-ins, frozen glacier viewings and being jolted out of bed at 1 am to see the Northern Lights. Amazing experiences to be sure – but not quite the relaxing time I was expecting.

The other part of it is that we’re looking forward to going home for once. First of all, we have Sammy, our newest member of our family to come home to. For the first time on a trip, we left someone behind. That meant that it was impossible to completely disconnect and well…

Our dog Sammy
Wouldn’t you want to come back to this dog too?

…we missed this guy!

We also have the baby on the way – which means we still have a lot of preparations to make. Unlike when we were in New Zealand (and every other trip before that), having one of us be pregnant meant the future baby was always on our minds. Between that and Sammy, we’re both looking forward to coming home.

Finally, our ship, the Radiance of the Seas, just wasn’t quite up to par with the last ship we took, the Norwegian Gem. I’m planning to do a full review later of the experience, but for now suffice it to say that despite being about the same size, there was a marked difference between the two.

With regards to Alaska though… Wow. Just what an amazing state. The incredible landscapes. The wildlife. And the food. Specifically, the salmon and the halibut.

It really is the salmon capital of the world.

We ate some form of fish literally every day on this trip, sometimes two or even all three meals had fish in them. It was really delicious everywhere we went. We’ve always been of the opinion the Pacific fish far outrank their Atlantic cousins. Alaska proved to us that it doesn’t matter if you’re out in Tahiti, back stateside in San Francisco, or all the way up in the Arctic north outside Denali National Park. It’s. Just. Better.

Seriously, I’ve had fish ‘n chips on four different continents. This place is the best in the world.

In the coming days, I’m planning to do a full round up on my general thoughts on Alaska including the highlights of our trip, lowlights, some recommendations on some must-see things as well as items to avoid.

But for now to Alaska we say:

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

A Bear In Ketichikan, The Inside Passage And Vancouver

A Bear In Ketichikan, The Inside Passage And Vancouver

Well, this is almost it. We are now at our final stop before making the long journey home to New Jersey. Looking back on this trip, the definite highlights were Denali and the humpback whale watching trip in Icy Strait Point.

But the last few days have had their moments.

First we stopped in Ketchikan, Alaska which is apparently the salmon capital of the world. It was pretty clear why this is – every year thousands (or maybe tens of thousands? Or hundreds of thousands??) swim up the creek that flows right through the center of town to spawn. They didn’t really come out so great in my pictures but all you really need to do is look down and you can see thousands of them.

With salmon of course, come bears and eagles. And we got to see both! Including one bear that just kind of popped up out of the bushes behind us!

Note of course my filming technique, which is critical for filming bears at close range. Essentially it boils down to staying a few steps behind the morons who rush up to get close to a bear. I mean seriously, these animals can run 30 miles per hour! Personally I would have never chosen to get this close to a bear but it really just kind of popped out of the bushes behind us. It was never really scary because except for that one look he gives us at the end of the video, he really didn’t seem all that interested in us.

Plus, there were literally a dozen idiots who rather than staying in place or slowly backing up actually ADVANCED in his direction. So if anyone was getting mauled – it would have been them. Still it was the closest I got to a wild animal since that time I foolishly stared down an elk at Rocky Mountain National Park.

In any case, our new bear friend didn’t really bother much with us. Rather he was much more interested in the thousands of salmon in the stream below us, which is where he immediately went after creeping up behind us.

After our run in with the bear, we then went to see some native totem poles. This was pretty cool, but the really exciting thing was yet another encounter with some Alaskan bald eagles! This time they were just about close enough to get a somewhat decent picture.

Bald eagles in a tree
Note that I said it was a “somewhat decent” picture…

After a quick lunch, it was time for our last real Alaskan event – the Ketchikan lumberjack show!

Alaskan Lumberjacks try to roll each other off of log.
What can I tell you guys, just another day in Alaska.

This was……OK. It was fun to watch (although man the seats were uncomfortable) a staged “competition” between guys doing things like axe throws and racing to chop logs. Think of it as like Medieval Times but with lumberjacks representing the United States and Canada. You’re supposed to cheer on your “country” (they sort the audience into US and Canada as well) and yell things out like “Yo Hoooo!” along with the performers. Fun for kids. And pretty fun for adults too. But at about $40 a ticket for a 45 minute show with no food……..I don’t know.

It certainly wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before, so I’m glad we went. Buuuuuttttt if I ever find myself in Ketchikan again…I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this.

One other really cool thing to do in Ketchikan is to visit the Tongass National Forest Visitor Center. It’s right next to the lumberjack show and has a really great overview of all the incredible national parks and lands within Alaska. Incredibly, only about 40% of the entire state is private land. To put that another way – that would be about 25% of the ENTIRE Lower 48! Incredible to learn and really put our whole Alaska experience into context.

Alaskan land is mostly publicly owned!
This land (of Alaska) is your land, this land is my land.

From Ketchikan, it was basically straight on through until Vancouver. We traversed the “Inside Passage” which is a really narrow body of water with hills, mountains and trees on both sides. Also present, tons of birds, sea mammals and other wildlife. We also shared our journey with another cruise ship with was pretty cool.

We traverse the Inside Passage of Alaska.
Welcome to the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Unfortunately for us, like a lot of the rest of time at sea, this day was completely overcast and occasionally really foggy.

A distant view of fog in the Inside Passage of Alaska.
You can actually see the fog we spent hours in right behind us. We couldn’t see ANYTHING.

So yesterday was mostly a relaxation day. After going through The Hobbit on the last trip, this was my day to try and make a dent in Lord of the Rings on this one.

This morning we awoke in the port of Vancouver.

The Vancouver Port
Bienvenue au Canada.

After bidding adieu to the Radiance of the Seas for the final time, we made our way to our lodging for the evening to drop our stuff off and do a little sight seeing. But Ariel and I were both so completely drained (also having to chase down our taxi driver as he drove away with my wallet wiped out the remainder of my energy) that all we did was head over to the Space Museum and get some lunch (including vegetarian gravy poutine fries!!!!) on Granville Island.

Ariel gives the thumbs down to feeding pigeons.
Please don’t feed the awful pigeons at Granville Public Market. PLEASE.

We’ve also already been to Vancouver on our first road trip as a couple way back in 2012 when we did 2,999 miles in just a week and half. So we’re pretty much done here.

Now, we prepare for the long journey home and radical change in our lives.

An overlook viewing of Vancouver Harbor.
Looking out into the sea from Vancouver.

Final thoughts on this trip, plus some reviews and guides to follow.

Exploring The High Seas Off The Coast Of Alaska

Exploring The High Seas Off The Coast Of Alaska

After a last-minute sidequest adventure, on top of a more aggressive/eventful couple of days than expected, we finally made it to our cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas.

Unlike a Bahamas cruise, Alaska cruises are a bit more demanding. For example, on our first day out, we sailed out to the Hubbard Glacier.

Welcome to the Hubbard Glacier. It looks much more awesome in person. But it’s also way colder.

And – much as you might expect – it’s pretty cold. So that means no lounging around on the deck like you would do on a tropical voyage. It also means you’re going to be dealing with pretty unpredictable weather. Like when you go to a warm destination and it rains, it’s a nuisance, but not a day killer. 45 degree rain really takes the energy out of you. Same for standing in the wind and staring at a giant block of ice for an hour.

In addition, unpredictable weather can cancel planned excursions or – as was the case for another cruise ship – shut down the port completely with a rock slide forcing you to go to a completely different place than you thought you were going. In our case, 80 mile per hour winds kept us from getting up close and personal with Hubbard.

The flip side of this though, is that you’re going to see some astonishing things.

The Fairweather Mountain Range. No joke, this was the view for hours one day.

Over the past three days we’ve come face to face with 19,000 foot coastal mountains, bald eagles, humpback whales and more glaciers than we’ve seen over the course of the rest of our lives combined.

Seriously, these mountains are all over the southern Alaskan coast.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re looking to just relax and lay out in a pool, stick to the Bahamas. If you’re in search of something more adventurous, an Alaska cruise is right for you.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a purely relaxing vacation – sometimes you just want to recharge the batteries. But if you’re coming on an Alaska cruise (really anywhere in Alaska), expect to be adventurous both off the boat and on it.

After our first day at sea, we landed in Juneau. We rented a car for the same price it would have cost to just take a shuttle to Mendenhall Glacier and drove out to the further point we could. Juneau is not connected by road to…anywhere. So 40 miles from town, the road basically just ends.

We saw a creek where salmon come to spawn and then…die. It’s actually pretty brutal/disgusting. There are literally dozens of salmon carcasses just lying around in the water.

Look closely at the creek and you’ll see it’s a veritable salmon mass grave.

This effectively makes it a sashimi bar for bears and eagles. We didn’t see bears, but we did see multiple bald eagles flying around, which was awesome.

From there we continued on to the Shrine of St. Therese, which was pretty cool. Best part was the “labyrinth” which you could walk through. Quick and easy little diversion.

The “Merciful Love Prayer” Labyrinth at the Shrine of St. Sherese

After that it was time for Mendenhall Glacier.

The Mendenhall Glacier. Like Hubbard it’s much more impressive in person. And colder.

Just incredible.

We spent some time driving around Juneau too, stopping by the governor’s mansion and the state Capitol building. Cool I guess, but whatever.

Yep, our mighty steed on this leg of the journey was a fricking Buick LeSabre boat.

Our cruise then departed Juneau for Skagway. And well…it was pretty rainy and miserable. Our helicopter trip was cancelled for safety reasons, so instead we just walked around town. We learned from pretty cool stuff during an excellent Ranger talk at the National Historic Park there. Skagway, you see, was the jumping off point for tens of thousands of people “stampeding” to the Klondike Gold Rush. Best fact – Klondike Bars are named for bars of Klondike gold that apparently less than 1% were able to get their hands on.

Cold and rainy Skagway. The day after we were there, a rock slide would close the port.

This morning we arrived in Icy Strait Point. When we arrived the whole place was covered in a dense fog.

Fog and a cruise ship in Alaska.
The fog here was RIDICULOUS.

This made our little forest hike really cool.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep…

Pretty much the whole day after that was spent on a humpback whale watching tour with Glacier Wind Charters. They were awesome. I mean really awesome. Just check out this video.

Hopefully I’ll have some time later to do a full write-up on the whale tour. But the views were really amazing once the fog lifted and we saw easily over a dozen humpback whales on our trip out.

This time of year, Humpbacks do a whole complicated technique calling bubble net feeding. Basically they circle around a school of herring to get them bunched up together and then all breach the surface together to eat them. Just an incredible sight to behold. I mean we saw this event play out like 10 times and I would have watched it another 100 times. If you have the opportunity to witness this first hand you must do it.

As we headed back to the ship, the fog really lifted and we got a view of an awesome bald eagle in a tree, as well some truly incredible views of the bay.

The bay around Icy Strait Point is full of amazing islands like this one.

Now we are back on the ship and cruising to our last destination before heading down to Vancouver and eventually…home.

A Friday Night/Shabbat Kiddush Sidequest

A Friday Night/Shabbat Kiddush Sidequest

We’ve been at sea now for about three days and have been taking in the various sights of Alaska. I’ll post an update on our travels shortly. But in my last post I mentioned that prior to setting sail we had one last adventure/sidequest to complete before being able to relax.

One tradition that I’m really proud to have started on my adventures is to always pause to watch the sunset. Wherever I am, no matter how many miles I’ve traveled that day or how many more miles I have yet to go, I always stop to watch the sun go down.

Well according to Jewish tradition, sundown on Friday nights is the traditional start of the Jewish Sabbath – AKA: Shabbat. So on Friday evenings, I like to say the traditional Shabbat blessings (Kiddush) wherever I am. It’s a nice reminder that wherever you go in life – where ever the road takes you – you’re still the person you always were. Bringing your traditions with you is a good way to remain grounded and tied to home.

It’s also a great way to feel connected to religion and spirituality, oftentimes while out in nature, in the strangest places. I’ve felt more spiritual in the few minutes it takes to do this little ritual than I have in years of going to synagogues.

I’ve also brought a bit of Jewish tradition to some pretty amazing places that are preeeeetty far from Jewish people and Judaism in general.

Shabbat in Moorea, French Polynesia.
Shabbat in Chaco Canyon National Park, New Mexico.
Shabbat in The Shire. Ok, the Catlins, New Zealand.
Shabbat in the Dominican Republic.

In many cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only person to have ever said these blessings in the places where I stood. That’s a pretty awesome feeling.

The only trouble is, in order to do the Jewish Kiddush you need bread and wine. Being something of a traditionalist that means I need KOSHER bread and wine or grape juice. This can present a challenge when you’ve forgotten to bring wine with you to say… the Dominican Republic. Or Seward, Alaska.

At some point on the way down from Denali National Park, it dawned on me that I did not have any grape juice (Ariel is pregnant so no wine for us on this trip!) or bread to do this. A few phone calls to the Chabad (a Jewish religious sect that does a lot of outreach/assistance for less religious Jews) in Anchorage confirmed that my only hope was to go to a local store in town. Apparently kosher grape juice and bread isn’t exactly a hot selling item in Alaska.

Pretty much all of the Jews in Alaska live in Anchorage so the only stores likely to have anything like that, in an area larger than half of the entire continental United States, were all located in one part of one city.

Unfortunately for us, that part of the city was NOT where we were going to be during the hour or so between our arrival there and our departure for Seward. I know this, because I called literally every liquor store within walking distance that could POSSIBLY have something like this. Nope.

So we were in a bit of a bind…

Suddenly, the gentleman sitting behind us tapped me on the shoulder and told us he would have us covered.

Jason, an African-American guy from Washington, DC who just so happened to be working in Alaska over the summer, had a friend in Seward who would go to one of the only stores in THAT town and see if they had any kosher grape juice (“Manischewitz” he pointed out, so we would know he knew EXACTLY what we were talking about) and MEET US AT THE DOCK TO DELIVER IT TO US.

It was a Shabbat Miracle.

However, the more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed to me that this thing would work out. Jason was awesome, and we chatted with him for the whole rest of the bus ride. But if it was almost impossible to find kosher grape juice in Anchorage, what were the odds they would have it in Seward?

So then we actually had a SECOND Shabbat Miracle and for whatever reason our time in Anchorage was increased to about 90 minutes.

This meant we were able to catch a cab to the outskirts of town, run into a store, buy a gallon of one of the last jugs of kosher grape juice they had (really, they only had one size and it cost $10), get BACK to the place we had to board the bus AND have a quick lunch at the food court of the Anchorage Mall.

Victory.

And still catch the bus to the docks in Seward.

Was it worth the effort? Worth the money? Worth the stress? Even though we aren’t the most religious people, the mere fact we succeeded in this little sidequest was very satisfying in and of itself. Plus we got to talk to Jason, a Jehovah’s Witness who still knew all about Judaism and “doing mitzvahs” (his words) because he spent some time researching Judaism when he was younger. We got to know him, how he ended up in Alaska and made a really personal connection with a total stranger by giving him an opportunity to offer a totally selfless act. I mean how great is that?

So yeah, it was worth it this time. And it was worth it the time we had another Shabbat miracle in the Dominican Republic and the place we were staying just happened to have one bottle of Israeli wine. And it was worth it the time I got to do Kiddush at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. And in Santorini (the image at the top of the post). And in a random field in Wyoming.

Any sidequest is generally worth doing. This one is my favorite.

And I hope you will consider doing something like this on your own travels. Doesn’t matter what your religion is. Just bring some of your traditions with you. When you’re furthest from home, in the wilderness, that’s the time you need to be most grounded.

So bring a little bit of home with you.

Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

So we’ve been in Alaska for a few days now and it is really something. Like it’s huge state, but it’s also just a HUGE state. “Everything’s bigger in Texas” except when compared to Alaska. EVERYTHING is massive here. The mountains. The glaciers. The distances. The temperature differences. It is really incredible.

And it is just an incredible contrast from where I was last week in Iowa and Minnesota, with their gentle rolling hills and Mid-western charm. That is not Alaska – at all. This is the big leagues of adventure travel.

After our initial train ride from hell, we checked into our hotel just outside Denali National Park. After a quick dinner at Karsten’s Pub (go with the fish and chips, they’re really good) we crashed for the night at about 9:30. After a few hours of sleep, we were awakened by the phone ringing.

“Aurora!” I shouted as we jumped out of bed, got dressed and went outside. The phone call was indeed from the front desk, telling us to go outside and look up. And boy what a sight…

The ACTUAL Northern freaking Lights IN REAL LIFE!

It lasted for about 15 minutes before fading away, but we actually got to see the Northern freaking Lights. This had been a lifelong dream for me. In fact, when we went to New Zealand we made an attempt to get as far south as possible in the hopes of seeing the Aurora AUSTRALIS (the nearly identical, although much less well known Southern Lights), but it just wasn’t happening. The pictures and video really don’t do the experience justice. We just gaped at the sky, awe-struck.

And then we went right back to bed so the whole thing felt like a dream – except for our photographic and video proof.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 and headed into the park. And it was incredible. I try not to use terms like “spectacular” or “grandiose” too often but they really fit the bill. Denali is just something else. We saw all kinds of animals like moose, caribou, bears, eagles and dall sheep.

Welcome to Denali National Park. One of the most remote places in the United States.

One thing to know about Denali is that they really enforce the rules about not interfering with the animals. Being that people aren’t able to drive in, you don’t get idiots who feed animals or otherwise interact with them. So the moose and bears keep their distance. This is a good thing for them, but it’s a bad thing for you…if you hypothetically forget to bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens…

There are bears somewhere off in the distance there, I swear…

It’s not like Yellowstone, where bison literally walk right up to your car and follow you as you drive down the street.

But the real star is the mountain itself. At over 20,000 feet, Denali (which means “The Great One”) is the biggest mountain in the world. What’s that you say? Mount Everest at 29,029 feet is higher? Well yeah, sure, if you grant it the 15,000 foot PLATEAU that gives it an unfair head start! Denali is on just a 2,000 foot plateau – so the mountain towers over its base by about 17,000 feet. Everest only goes up about 14,000 feet from top to bottom.

So as far as I’m concerned I just saw the BIGGEST mountain in the WORLD.

By far, the most incredible mountain I’ve ever set eyes upon.

And apparently, it’s a very shy biggest mountain because it’s really only visible about 30% of the time. Well we sure lucked out.

Our trip through the park took about 13 hours to go to the end of the 92-mile-long park road.

The end of the road…

They don’t let private cars drive more than 15 miles into the park so you need to book a ticket with either a tour bus or a shuttle bus. The tour bus costs about three times as much and includes a guide that tells you about the park.

Don’t bother.

We went with the shuttle bus, which was driven by a National Park employee. Our driver, JJ, had a microphone and basically did the job of a guide anyway. He answered all of our questions, told us about interesting things about the park, and stopped the bus anytime someone saw an animal they wanted to photograph. In fact, he was so devoted to showing us everything we wanted that we actually got back to the entrance to the park, the last shuttle back to our hotel (which leaves at 7 pm) had left.

Our driver even showed us wild cranberries and blueberries that we could eat!

Calling the hotel to send a “special” shuttle to get us meant paying $10 and waiting 20 minutes.

NOPE.

After our new friends on our shuttle bus heard about our predicament, several of them offered to drive us back since they were staying in the neighborhood anyway. So we caught a ride for free. Much like our near disaster at Tongariro, I knew there was about a 100% chance we would be able to catch a ride back with one of the dozens of people who visit the park if you miss your shuttle. So take your time and don’t stress it.

Who would want to leave this place, ever?

We got back to the hotel, had a quick dinner and went to sleep. No dancing lights this time.

The next morning we got our stuff together and headed for the cruise ship in Seward.

And finally some relaxation. But first there was one last little sidequest to complete…

Always make the most of the time you are given.

But we’ll save that story for another time.

49 States: We Made It To Alaska!

49 States: We Made It To Alaska!

Well, we did it! We are in the Last Frontier.

After my short diversion this week to states number 47 and 48, Ariel and I touched down yesterday afternoon in Alaska!

Welcome to Alaska everybody.

Just setting foot in this state was a pretty massive moment for me because I’m now officially a member of “Club 49” – and it just so happened IN the 49th state.

And then, there was one. Just need to get to Hawaii and that’s a wrap.

That’s a pretty awesome coincidence and even better because the 50th state to enter the Union, will also be the 50th state I enter – whenever that happens.

So we’ve now been in Alaska for just about 24 hours and it really is everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s huge. It’s beautiful. It’s cold. Perhaps that last one is not so surprising, but still, even being in Alaska, it’s strange to think about wearing layers and sweatshirts in August. It’s also the tail end of the season here and you can really feel the state winding down.

The colors are shifting in the bushes. The hotel employees are getting ready to head back to their home states for the winter. And the average age of the other people visiting is somewhere north of 67.

After landing in Anchorage, we crashed into bed early last night. It was a pretty long travel day – starting at 6:45 am New Jersey time and ending at about 6 pm Alaska time (which is 10 pm NJ time).

A view of downtown Anchorage from the train station.

This morning we were up and at ’em at about 5 am for an eight hour train ride to Denali National Park. Unfortunately for us, we shared a train car with a pack of rabid hyenas. Wait no, they weren’t hyenas, they were just a pack of drunk retirees who felt the need to bellow and bray and hoot and holler for the entire ride.

Look, I’m all for having a good time. But we were in this unbelievably beautiful place, with panoramic windows and views of endless mountains, valleys and forests, and these loudmouths wouldn’t shut up for eight straight hours. I mean imagine sitting in one of the loudest bars you’ve been in…but on a train in a national park. At 10 am!

Ariel and I seek refuge in the dining car from drunken hyenas.

Even worse, the guy whose job it was to point out landmarks and give us interesting facts about the areas we were passing through just gave up trying to talk louder than them. It was so bad that I wanted to apologize to the one foreign couple in our train car. Eventually we just moved to a different (much quieter!) car. And it was such a shame because our guide from the original car was actually from New Jersey too! Dunellen to be exact. What a crazy coincidence! He was telling us about how he had lived in Barrow, Alaska which is a place I’ve been interested in going to ever since I was in Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s so remote over there that they only get one shipment of gasoline A YEAR.

Anyway, we finally made it to Denali National Park, which is truly beautiful.

Seriously, this place is beautiful. Come here now.

It really is awesome.

Tomorrow we enter the park in search of Mount Denali itself, the tallest mountain in the world. Yeah that’s right, it’s taller than Mount Everest. Google it if you don’t believe me.