Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Alaska Cruise - Day 4

Monday, August 11 2008

Today we had a very early rise. We both woke up around 6am and were wondering what to do before we’d dock in Juneau, AK. We decided an early morning swim was in order so we changed into our bathing suites and went up to the Lido deck first for some breakfast until 7am, the time the pool would open. We found some good deck chairs and around 7am we indeed went into the pool. There were not a lot of people in the pool so we had some room to do some laps. But we didn’t. We got talking to two kids that turned out to be the Joel kids from Phil and Heather Joel. (Phil used to be the bassist for the Newsboys, and now is a solo artist and speaker. He and his wife have started an organization called Deliberate People (ADD LINK) to encourage people to spend devotional time with God each day). After a while Heather joined us on the side of the pool and we got talking about kids and cruising. Niels went off for a short stint in the Hot tub while Jen kept talking with Heather.

Around 8am the Joels left to get dressed and to get ready for their talk as part of the Spirit West package and we left to get our regular breakfast in the Vista restaurant. The food in there is so much better than in the Lido Buffet restaurant. Hard to believe it’s the same price on the same ship. One of the things Phil and Heather were saying is that the security at the Spirit West events isn’t enforced to the extent of having body guards at the door so they ‘encouraged’ us to walk into the event with a group of people to see if we could get in that way. Well, that worked. We got to see Phil speak about his walk with the Lord all the way from New Zealand to his current life in Nashville. Heather also participated and talked from a parenting angle.

It was getting closer to docking time in Juneau (ADD STORY ABOUT the CELEBRITY) so we headed back to our room to change and get ready. We packed our backpack with our jackets and goodies and when we got outside our room we were welcomed by the line to get to shore. The procedure is fairly simple. The ship docks, the passenger manifest is exchanged with the local border patrol officers before the ship is ‘cleared’. The gangplank gets connected to the ship and we are ready to go on shore. You need your room key to get off and on the ship as upon scanning it displays your picture on the security monitor to make your room key your on-board photo ID. So after all those formalities we ‘walked the plank’ and we were in Alaska!

Since it’s Jen’s first trip to Alaska she gets to add another state and a good chunk of United States territory to her world tour list. Since it’s my 2nd time to Alaska I must say it felt good to be back. I love the outdoors and Alaska is about as outdoors as it gets.

We pre-booked a number of excursions and two of them were in Juneau, AK. The first one was a tour of the city, a visit to a local salmon hatchery and a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier in the valley north of Juneau. The tour took us through Franklin Street past the Red Door Saloon, the Baranof Hotel and some of the other interesting little shops on the same street. Next point was the Alaska State Capitol building on 4th Street. An interesting thing is that when they built the State building they also decided to put the Post Office in the same building. The put it on the 3rd floor, but only later found out that it had to be on either the ground floor or the 2nd floor. So, in a typical Alaskan simplicity move, they…renumbered the floors! Funny. We passed a local gas station and saw the gas was about $1 more ($4.75) per gallon than it is in Ohio. Good thing all the roads in the Juneau area only amount to 150 miles. A little further is the Alaska State Museum. In front of it was a monument commissioned by the Federal Government to be placed in front of the Capitol building, but it was so ugly state legislators had it removed. It actually got lost for a couple of years and they found it at a local scrap yard and when they build the Museum they fixed it up and put it up for display in front of the Museum. I must say this is one item where I have to agree with the state legislators, it’s ugly… ;-)

We turned onto Egan Drive and headed north to the valley alongside the Gastineau Channel until we reached the salmon hatchery. Before we left on the tour that was not one of the things particularly high on my list, but it was really interesting to see what a hatchery does. It basically acts as an artificial insemination station and birth place of salmon. With salmon ‘recording’ the chemical balance of the water they always return to their birthplace to spawn and die, so by releasing the salmon at birth they simply come back to the hatchery for spawning giving the hatchery easy access to eggs, semen and the salmon. Since they release millions of them, they have a good steady supply of salmon. After the tour we were ‘released’ into the gift shop where they had a very interesting aquarium of local marine life and after we took some pictures and video of said marine life we headed back to the bus for the highlight of our first excursion in Juneau, being the Mendenhall Glacier, part of the Tongas National Forest which covers a large part of the ‘South East’ or the ‘Panhandle’ as Alaskans call this part of Alaska.

This glacier is one of the easiest accessible glaciers in North America (after the Columbia Icefields in the Canadian Rockies). It is a magnificent sight to see and Niels was definitely in his ‘happy place’. Jen repeatedly had to call for him to wait up ;-) Jen was surprised to see that the glacier looked very blue. This blue color comes from the fact that glacier ice is very dense. Due to the pressure of the ice it squeezes out all air and becomes so dense that it absorbs pretty much all light colors, except blue, which is reflected. Hence the blue color. The more blue you see, the more dense the ice of a glacier is.

We went into the visitors center for some background on the glacier and a video about its origin and the current state (video was about 10 years old, but hey, that’s fairly current for a glacier). The main difference is that the average retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier was about 60ft a year, but that has since increased to about 200ft, with last year being a record retreat, almost 600ft.
Even though the glacier has been retreating since 1765 (earliest recorded discovery), the retreat is accelerating and the current debate among scientists is to what extend humans are responsible for it. Climate change is a given, that’s been a fact of life since God created it, but the speed of the change and the direction it is going in is where the debate is all about. For me, it’s just an awesome sight to see. The amount of ice present is large enough to create its own little weather pattern. It is (upon average) about 10 degrees cooler and nearby valley residents have been clearing almost twice as much snow from their driveways as the residents of the Downtown / Douglas and Thane communities.

The tour concluded with a drive back to Downtown Juneau and that suited us fine since we wanted to stop at the local library to post some blog items about our trip. We had the Word documents on a USB stick, but forgot to put them into a txt-format or at least Word 2003 format, so with no computers available in the library to read Word 2007 everybody has to hold their breath a little longer before they can read this account of our travels (update: it's now Wednesday and we're in Sitka and uploading the reports of the first few days). There are worse things in life…

The weather for the entire morning was perfect. Nice and dry, overcast, and a nice 60 or so degrees. At the conclusion of the tour it started to rain a bit, not much, enough to make things appear wet. This is a very common weather pattern in Juneau, being in the middle of a temperate rainforest. We packed our raingear but decided we didn’t need it at this point. Just a light rain and since we’re not made out of sugar, we didn’t think anything else of it.
We looked at some of the shops, most of which are very much tourist traps so we headed away from the direct vicinity of the cruise terminals and went into a local bookstore (Jen’s happy place) and into a store called ‘Ben Franklin’. It had all kinds of things, but it had some baby gear (we ARE pregnant) and some Christmas ornaments with ‘Alaska 2008’ on it, so we bought one. We started a tradition to buy at least one ornament per year that represents something we did in that year. On our way back to the Shuttle to the ship we stopped at the Alaska T-Shirt Factory. That sounds as much as the tourist trip is actually is, but since T-shirts are fairly cheap and at least a little useful we indulged the local tourist industry a bit. When we got out the weather had cleared-up a bit. The rain took care of the low cloud cover of the early afternoon so we decided to use the tickets we had for the second excursion of the day; The Mount Roberts Tramway.

This tramway was build in 1996 by the local Tlingit and gives you a quick ride up Mount Roberts. The tram cars (built in France) take up to 60 people so there was no wait. A quick 5 minutes later we arrived at the top station and had some awesome views on Juneau and the 4 cruise ships that were docked in Juneau. It even had the 8.30pm time listed for the last tram to depart for our ship, the MS Oosterdam, more about that and Dutch punctuality later… On the way up we saw an observation deck a little out from the station so we decided to literally take a hike. We put on our raingear and I moved the backpack to front so I could fit my jacket over it to keep it dry. For a change I looked more pregnant than Jen…

With me in my trail shoes, my trail pants and a waterproof Tenson jacket I was ready to go. Jen, however was wearing fake Crocks… with holes in them, with socks, white socks. Well, the traction of said footwear left something to be desired (ahum) but we set off anyway. We had some hairy moments due to the earlier mentioned footwear, but we made it further up the mountain to Father Brown’s cross, a local priest in the early 1900s who was partly responsible for creating some of the very trails we were hiking today. The trails are in perfect condition and with proper footwear very easy to hike. Having the Crocks as footwear on a pregnant, head injured, balance-challenged wife made the descent on the wet mud and shale covered trails a pretty hairy expedition. I gave Jen a walking stick on the way up (free to use on the trails) so with that stick in her right hand and holding on to me with her left hand we slowly and carefully made our way back down the mountain back to the tram station. We had some slipping moments, but kept everything and everybody nicely vertical.

One other thing they had at the tram station was an injured bald eagle. He had only 1 eye and some flying issues and was located in a large cage outside the tram station. People were allowed to take pictures, but you can only do so without flash (for obvious reasons).

We were getting a bit tired and hungry so started to make our way back to the ship. The trip down the mountain gave us more breathtaking views of the Juneau area and 5 minutes later we were back at ground level where the Shuttle bus to the ship was already waiting for us. Boy, did we love to just sit back and enjoy this little bus ride.

Back on the ship we quickly jumped in the shower and went over to the Vista restaurant. Niels seems to be enjoying his ability to eat seafood on the ship and had salmon for dinner and another salmon for dinner and a little later in the evening he had a 3rd dinner by ways of some elbow pasta with Bolognese sauce. Jen is still eating small bits, but eating more and more each day.
After the 3rd dinner we decided to go back to the pool to swim a bit and to view our departure from Juneau. As mentioned before, the departure time was listed as 8.30pm and indeed the plank was withdrawn at 8.40pm and we were sailing at 8.45pm, so let this be a note for all future departures: BE ON-TIME or have your cameras ready to capture the beauty of seeing your ship sail without you.

While watching the ship leave Juneau we got talking with Olga and Josh from California and played Uno Spin. A very interesting ‘spin’ on the game of Uno with Catan development card like additions. I think we might actually get that game. It is truly a lot of fun to play, especially with more than 2 people.

Since we were up since 6am and it was now coming up on 10.30pm we decided to call it a day, but what a day it was and it was only day 3… C U tomorrow!!!

P.S.: We caught the medal count at the Olympics: USA: 27, China: 22

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