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Cruising the Alaska Channel

Sailing from Seattle, there were dramatic mountain ranges and chains of islands almost immediately after leaving port, and for most if the way up, at least to our east. The western side if the ship was more likely to look like open sea; the Inside Passage is quite wide in places.

At 6 a.m. on the morning we were to arrive in Juneau, we were out on the deck, whale-watching. We were graced with the presence of numerous whales, porpoises, eagles, and other creatures*as well as the most magnificent combinations of light and mist and reflection as the sun struggled unsuccessfully to make itself noticed for the day (which turned out almost entirely overcast, misty, or rainy).

Juneau
Juneau deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful state capitals—not because of its architecture, which for the most part ranges from uninspiring to hideous, but because of its magnificent surroundings.

Although it's the capital, it's easy to forget that, as even in Santa Fe the impact of government is far more noticeable. We noticed only five buildings related to state government: a state office building, the factory-like, no-dome Capital, state archives, the Alaska State Museum (more on that later), and a parking garage (one of at least two in this town of only 32,000). The Governor's Mansion is a large and very accessible white colonial with Tara-like pillars, on a hill amongst other houses just above downtown. And traffic is not a problem at all; the only congestion was on the crowded downtown sidewalks and shops, where 10,000 visitors from four cruise ships found their diversions for the day.

Some of this, I'm sure, is related to Alaska's long tradition of rugged individualism and resentment of government interference in anything. And some must surely be related to Juneau's status as the only state capital that you can't reach by car. There are 40 miles of roads in Juneau, but nothing connecting it with anywhere else. Sea and land are the only ways in.

Although our ship's port lecturer focused almost entirely in shopping—describing in painstaking detail all the various jewelry stores that paid to be mentioned—there are a lot of more interesting ways to spend the day there. Directly in front of the Mount Roberts tramway station, we caught one of the frequent local buses to Mendenhal Glacier ($12 round trip). Our driver even gave us a narrated tour of both the humanscape ("This is the state capital—that's where they're going to build our Wal-Mart") and the landscape. ("This is our wetland. You'll see lots of eagles here.").

A short paved trail leads to an overlook, with the big shelf of the rapidly receding glacier, blue-and-white icebergs floating on the lake where the glacier used to be, in shapes reminiscent of E.T., motorboats, and small houses. It was overcast the whole time; I can imagine how blue it would have appeared under a blue sky.

It was a bit tricky finding the East Glacier trailhead; it literally starts as a path along the edge of the visitor's center—but once we did, we were simply enchanted by this mossy, lush trail through a temperate rain forest, with several overlooks out on the glacier below. It was less than an hour round trip to a lovely waterfall; the trail continues considerably farther, if you're feeling adventurous.

Juneau's restaurant choices (several pizza joints, one Asian fast food, one Mexican, a few sandwich shops, and out on the strip, some national burger chains) did not inspire us, so we returned to the boat for lunch. Funny—we live just outside Northampton, Massachusetts, with a slightly smaller population. But Northampton is a major restaurant destination; people come for 50 miles around for dinner and a concert, and have about 70 choices of where to eat—and the restaurants are busy even at lunch, when it's mostly locals. In Juneau, eating out is apparently not a local sport. But where Northampton is swimming in restaurants, in Juneau, it's jewelry shops.

Anyway, our first stop was the modern and pleasant library. Four floors up above the other downtown parking garage, it offers a very nice view of the harbor and downtown (a nice bonus; we were actually there to check e-mail and pitch our books—and it turned out the library already had two of my titles, which always makes a writer feel great).

Next, the Alaska State Museum. The whole thing can be seen in one to one and a half hours, but is very worth seeing. A fabulous collection of Native art, including quite a few totem poles, good explanations of the cultures and stories associated with the artifacts, a fun exhibit on Alaska tourism through the decades, wildlife exhibits including eagle habitat—and during our visit, a fabulous exhibit of the wonderful work of Denise Wallace, a Native artisan whose doll figures and jewelry combine traditional Native and contemporary influences. And they even allow flash photography!

We did finish our day with a couple of hours in the shops. If you have significant disposable income, you can collect exquisite traditional and contemporary Native art, fine jewelry, and more. For the beer-and-hot dog crowd, there are the usual souvenir shops with cheap t-shirts. But not much in between those price ranges. There were some low-end imitations of the high-end Native crafts, modestly priced small jade figurines, totem-pattern prints in the $25 range, and endless places to buy dried salmon, but very little in, say, textiles.

Hubbard Glacier
Approachable only by ship, Hubbard Glacier is simply stunning. We caught it on a sunny if chilly day and we were out on the deck from about 10 a.m., when we were still quite some distance out, until nearly 2, as we started to pull away. It's first of all in a gorgeous spot, within sight of Mount Ely (at 18,000 feet, second only to McKinley) and several other mountains. Two sets of ranges form a gap, and the glacier squats between them, apparently not very tall until you realize that it towers several times higher than the cruise ship directly in front of it (not ours; there was a steady stream). For hundreds of yards immediately in front of the glacier, the sea is full of ice chunks that fell off, and as you approach, you'll see and hear chunks of glacier "calve" (break off in chunks) and fall noisily and with a great splash. You can also see steady streams of bubbles and spray where underground rivers come to the surface.

The ice ranges in color: gray to black where it picked up debris as it scooped the land, stark white or crystalline blue elsewhere (the blue areas, apparently, are under greater pressure). Just beautiful! I think the pictures will be stunning.

Sitka
Still showing heavy Russian influence, this quiet backwater charmed us with its scenic beauty, high craftsmanship, and delightful activities. We began by walking an easy mile through downtown to Sitka National Historic Park, stopping just before the park entrance and its several totem poles to pick ripe salmonberries and enjoy a small bayfront beach at Merrill Rock. In the park, we followed the Totem Pole Trail—another of those lovely, mossy, sprucy temperate rain forests. A short detour to the Russian Memorial led us to a spot where salmon were continuously high-jumping on their way upstream, and then we continued through the park to the entrance of the Alaska Raptor Center, where $12 bought us exposure to open, protected eagle habitat, as well as caged eagles, falcons, hawks and owls in various stages of physical rehabilitation after accidents, gunshots, encounters with power lines, etc. We were lucky enough to be there for a live program with Volta, one of the injured bald eagles.

After a surprisingly good sushi lunch, we explored the stores. With far less hype or pressure than Juneau, shops display equally fine if not superior soapstone carvings, traditional and nontraditional Native paintings, and exquisite works of art in glass, stone, and leather. Of particular note are the Sitka Rose Gallery, in a Queen Anne home facing the water, and one of several Russian-themed craft stores—the Archangel Michael Giftshop—where we found exquisite and delicate china tea sets in very unusual patterns, and at quite reasonable prices.

Ketchikan
We were greeted with glorious sunshine as we arrived in Ketchikan, with only five and a half hours in port. The downtown area is quite a bit larger than Juneau's. Along the waterfront, though, the streets are similar: jewelers, craft galleries, t-shirt and souvenir shops, and such, along with espresso bars and the occasional restaurant.

Yet this town has a very different energy. It's a working class "real people" town that extends well beyond the glitzy and crowded harbor shops. Working boats crowd the waterfront, an a certain gritty sincerity marks the outlying residential neighborhoods.

Picking up a walking tour map/pamphlet (freely available from tourist information or from any of the downtown shops), we made our way perhaps a mile and a half along Park Avenue to the City Park, home to two of Ketchikan's best in-town attractions: the Native-operated, city-run Totem Heritage Cultural Center, and the neighboring salmon hatchery and eagle rescue center. A combined ticket covering both is $12, or tickets can be purchased separately at $5 for the totem museum and $9 for the hatchery.

The Totem Heritage Cultural Center has collected a number of antique—and massive—totem poles, covering several distinct villages and three separate cultures: T'lingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. This museum offers good explanations about the types of totem poles: mortuary (containing cremated ashes), memorial (to remember a dead person who is buried elsewhere; a new chief is required to erect one for his predecessor), ridicule (to humiliate someone who cheated in some way), life milestone or tribal historical event such as hosting a potlatch. Most of the totem poles are displayed in the same condition that they were found in, which means in many cases they are quite deteriorated. Still, there's plenty to see—and one of the best things was that several poles are displayed horizontally, so it's possible to get up very close to the carvings.

The salmon hatchery describes the various types of salmon and their life stages, and narrated tours show the hatchery tanks, fish ladder, release point, and so forth. And two rescued female bald eagles, injured too badly to return to the wild, hold court. Not worth a special trip after seeing the much more elaborate raptor rescue mission in Sitka, but a pleasant extension of the park expedition if you're already out seeing the totem poles (there are a number of other totem pole collections in or near Ketchikan, but with out limited time, we chose the one we could walk to—and it was a good choice).

Walking back to town along Stedman (a not-very-pretty route, as it turned out), we saw a number of other poles as well.

And in the shops, we found a great discovery: the work of Marvin Oliver, using traditional patterns but very bright and nontraditional colors. The artist was staffing his own store and chatted very affably with us; while his paintings are expensive, he also sells his paterns very affordably on notecards and t-shirts.

Victoria, B.C.
After a week in the tiny towns of Southeast Alaska, it's a bit of a shock to approach a harbor with an actual skyline. A series of tall, modern hotels stands between Victoria's cruise port and its elegant late 19th/early 20th-century downtown.

And at least when rise ships are in port, it's lively late into the evening (a good thing, since we docked at 6 p.m. and were out again by 11:30. Vendors line the waterfront, selling homemade jewelry, carvings, while-you-wait portraits and name banners, and so forth; the entire south side seemed to be given over to Native artists (whose styles included what we'd seen in Alaska, but also overlapped with Indian cultures in the Lower 48, such as fur-edged dream catchers). Street musicians and performers are absolutely everywhere, not just in the tourist blocks but into Old Towne and Chinatown, where most of the people seemed to be local. A play was performed in a semi-indoor courtyard, separated from the street by colorful rainbow banners.

Directly around the inner harbor stand some huge edifices: the Parliament buildings, illuminated with Christmas lights around every edge after dark, the massive British Columbia museum complex, and of course, downtown's most famous landmark, the still-very-grand Empress Hotel (one of several very classy old independent hotels that have managed somehow to survive as the Hiltons and their ilk spring up, and the largest stream of visitors is lodging aboard ship or day-tripping by ferry from the mainland). Architecturally, the Empress deliberately recalls Quebec's Chateau Frontenac, with its distinctive pointy roofs; both apparently were built (along with a number of other hotels around the country, all with similar steep-sides roofs) and at least initially operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. However, where the Frontenac is tightly closed in by other buildings on its town side and reaches many stories into the sky, the Empress sprawls across an entire massive city block but is much lower to the ground (still several floors, though).

Not only are there dozens if not hundreds of handsome stone commercial buildings, but at least a few of the shops have preserved their 19th-century appearance: everything in dark wood, no plastic in sight. Two standouts were a chocolatier founded in the 1880s and a tobacconist from probably a few years later, both on touristy Government Street.

Victoria's downtown is eight blocks long and four blocks wide, and the ambience is very different on (or a block in either direction off) Government than further up the hill on Douglas, almost as busy but catering almost entirely to locals. Pubs and banks and convenience stores are found on Douglas, rather than souvenir shops or trendy restaurants.

Dining choices abound, in every price range and taste. In addition to Chinatown, with its two blocks of mostly Cantonese restaurants (and the distinct impression that the Chinese community used to be larger, as many of the storefronts, especially along the historic narrow alleys, are now non-Asian galleries and shops), we saw Mexican, Thai, fusion/nouvelle, seafood, falafel, dozens of cafes—but after a week of eating rich and creamy cruise ship food, we chose a simple, down-home vegan buffet at Green Cuisine, in the Market Square courtyard in Old Towne.

And amazingly, in three hours of walking around town, we didn't pass a single U.S.-based fast-food chain restaurant or franchised store. I'm guessing there's a law keeping them out of the downtown historic districts, and that they're off on some outlying highway business strip—we were told that there is at least a Starbucks. But meanwhile, visitors can relish a culture built on local, independent shops, with distinctive character and real personalities behind the counter.

Both ends of the 5000-mile-long Trans-Canada Highway are on islands, oddly enough. The western end is here; the eastern terminus in St. John's, Newfoundland. The shuttle driver (every ten minutes between the cruise terminal and the Empress) pointed out the well-marked Mile Zero with its vest-pocket park as we went by.


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