Thursday, June 30, 2011

Alaska, Part II

Day 4 

Half-woke at 4 to daylight.  Got up early and ran 2 miles as we docked at Ketchikan.  Ship inched into the dock; it was nice to run without the wind.  Showered, ate, and walked through town, where brightly colored wooden homes are perched on brilliant green hills overlooking the harbor.

Lots of souvenir/jewelry/carvings/rock shops on Creek Street, the old red-light district. 

Took a funicular up the hill to see more totem poles, which are all over town. 

Also notable: beautiful plantings and flowers on many street corners.  Some of the flowers look almost tropical.

We walked out of the downtown, and then it was a little less manicured: lots of rusted-out cars, peeling paint, a Goodwill thrift shop, store fronts with “Everything Must Go!” signs in the windows.  This is the kind of stuff I like to see.  I like imagining what it’s like to live in places I visit, and I have a feeling that life in Ketchikan is hard when the cruise ships leave in September.

Factoid: Ketchikan boasts the smallest Wal-Mart in the world.  When it opened, it sold out in hours and had to close until it could restock. 

After lunch, I found a quiet corner of the Promenade deck and read and ate chocolate.  My kind of heaven.  Met Roy and Josine at 4 for Trivia.  Our group included a lovely young man from Sacramento and a husband and wife from Pleasanton.  Wife reminded me of my ex-husband’s wife in both appearance and inability to stop talking.  (“What car did Lenin outfit with skis?  Did Lenin drive?  Wasn’t he Russian?  Or Soviet?  Was he Russian or Soviet?  Were there Russian cars?  I don’t know anything about Russian cars.  Was this before World War I or after?  Did he say skis or snowshoes?”)  We didn’t do very well.  Lenin drove a Rolls Royce, but we missed it.

Sunny afternoon sailing up the Inside Passage.  The vistas were spectacular.  Sat on our balcony with Robert until someone next door started smoking weed.  There really is nowhere on a ship to escape entirely from other people.  Ironic, because that’s one thing that is apparently easy to do in Alaska.  And even I—bitter and complaining isolationist that I am—would feel so bereft and lonely if I had to be here for any length of time.  I would go mad with loneliness.  The beauty and serenity and bright, pristine splendor would be nothing without people around (whom I would undoubtedly work to avoid).

After dinner, we went to a revue in the Princess Theater: songs of the 20s and 30s by the Princess Singers and Dancers, who performed at about the level of a mediocre community college theater department. 

On exiting the theater, one of the young cruise directors asked me with a smile, “Did you like the show?” 

Being polite, I said, “Yes, I did,” whereupon Cruise Director called out, “Chester?  These people liked the show!”  “Chester” turned out to be the “feelings police” guy from yesterday.  He and his wife were sitting on a couch outside the theater.  “What ship are they on?” he asked crankily, not missing a beat.

I have decided that Chester and I are kindred spirits, and that I’m going to look for him tomorrow and sit as close as I can.

Day 5

Two-mile jog at six.   The water of the Inside Passage was glassy and almost black with the reflection of the steep hills rising on both banks, thick with untouched forest and brush.  Everything was green in a way that makes you think all other greens you’ve seen are something else entirely: a murky blue, or some version of brown.  Patches of snow lay at the top of the hills.  Sometimes you could see snow melt running into the ocean; sometimes it was frozen mid-fall against the crags.

From the ship, Juneau is much less picturesque than Ketchikan: all cinderblock and industrial browns and grays.  It has the distinction of being the only state capital without road access: everyone getting in or out does so by plane or ship. 

We docked at the base of a steep, green hill.  I was standing at the window and saw two eagles circling.  One of them landed on a tree directly in front of and slightly above us.  Fortunately, we brought binoculars.  I have never seen an eagle in the wild before.  Magnificent.

Robert and I walked through town. 

We had breakfast in a café (scrambled egg on a panini and very good Earl Grey), then browsed in a used bookshop, where I bought WE WERE THE MULVANEYS, by Joyce Carol Oates.  It started to rain, so we headed back to the docks, where tour bookers were hawking excursions.  We boarded what looked like a 1950s school bus and headed out of town to the Mendenhall Glacier.  We drove past Mount Juneau, the base of whose steep face is considered the most dangerous avalanche location in the urban US. 

More beautiful countryside, pocked with suburban homes.  Tour guide said most of Juneau’s 30,000 people live out toward Mendenhall.  (He also said he was a Republican and that even though it “killed” him to say it, Gore was right about global warming, whereupon both Robert and I said, “Duh!” loudly.)  I saw lots of churches (Church of the Nazarene, Church of Christ) and lots of rusted-out cars on front lawns.  Tour guide informed us that if someone wants to move to the lower 48, there is no inexpensive way to bring his car along, so many are abandoned.

Glacier (in the heart of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest) is smaller than when I was here in ’95.  But still beautiful, still that breathtaking shade of toothpaste blue I have never seen anywhere else in nature. 

Cottonwood trees abound; when the sun came out, they gave up their snowy puffs, making lots of people sneeze.
Arctic terns swooped and buzzed the ponds.  A waterfall gushed nearby.

Last night, we talked to a Filipino waiter who waxed rhapsodic about the US.  He told us we have no idea how lucky we are to have access to $5 meals at McDonalds.  Food is expensive in the Philippines, he said.  “You know what I love about America?  Wal-Mart.  Target.  Costco.  Yes, I have a card.  I love the Philippines, but I love America also,” he said.  I thought about that conversation at the glacier.  I love my country for a lot of reasons.  For me, natural beauty is higher on the list than access to Wal-Mart.  But I see now how privileged that makes me.  I already knew it, but sometimes it’s a good thing to be reminded.

Dinner tonight marred by news that norovirus has invaded the ship.  I am trying hard not to panic but am also gratified that my isolationist ways may yet come in handy.

Day 6

Jog as we docked at Skagway.  If it weren’t for the two other cruise ships already in port, I would have missed the town.

Breakfast on the Lido Deck: fruit and coffee for me.  After a while, the excess of offerings begins to wear on me.  Robert loves it, though: this morning, he especially liked the smoked mackerel.

The staff is taking the threat of norovirus very seriously.  When you arrive at the restaurants, you must wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap that is provided at the front door.  Staff stand guard and make sure you use it.  At the cafeteria-style breakfast, you are not even allowed to use tongs to put food on your plate: another staff member wearing rubber gloves uses the tongs for you.

Skagway is small and has the look of a wild-west town in Wyoming, except that there are no high plains or tumbleweed or cattle.  Wood-planked sidewalks without curbs, Victorian architecture.

There is a structure made entirely of driftwood:

Ubiquitous diamond merchants, jewelry and souvenir shops, several saloons.  We ate fish and chips in one, then walked through more of the town.  There was a lovely museum housed in the first granite building in Alaska, once home to the McCabe College for Women, which was really a college-preparatory high school.  Boys and girls were taught Latin, Greek, modern languages, natural sciences, history.  It was only in existence for three years, when a public school was finally built.  The headmaster was Oxford-educated.

The day was almost hot, but the wind kicked up after 3.  I can’t stop thinking about that school, about being a young woman in Alaska in the 19th century, learning Greek and Latin in a town five blocks wide, where winter days are five hours long.

These are some of the clothes that young women traveling to the Klondike were advised to bring at the end of the 19th century:

1 pair house slippers

1 pair knitted slippers

1 pair heavy soled walking shoes

1 pair arctics

1 pair felt boots

1 pair German socks

1 pair heavy gum boots

1 pair ice creepers

3 pair heavy all-wool stockings

3 pair summer stockings

Some sort of gloves for summer wear, to protect the hands from mosquitoes.

I don’t even know what some of these things are, but they make the whole endeavor of relocating to Alaska sound especially difficult for hands and feet.   We haven’t seen a lot of mosquitoes, which is surprising.  And here in Skagway, not many birds: just a few gulls, an arctic tern or two, one eagle.  Maybe we’re too far north.

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