The wilds of Alaska (part 1)

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Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff

One of the most awesome sights in Alaska is watching the calving (huge chunks of ice breaking off a glacier) as glaciers such as the Hubbard, fall into the sea. The splash lifts a fog of sea spray high in the air as the ice floats off on a southward journey. These won't pose a danger to ships but the Titanic learned that some chunks are much bigger than others.

Not so many years ago the only ways to reach Alaska were either to fly in or try to navigate the often muddy and impassable Alcan Highway. The choice of the road was somewhat akin to the cable television show “Ice Road Truckers.”

Alaska was a foreboding place with great settings for adventure writers and movies, but not a place most people had high on their bucket lists for luxury vacations.

The first big opening came along with the construction of the Alaskan Pipeline, bringing thousands of construction workers to the 50th state. Along with them came merchants providing for their needs, families, schools and ancillary amenities. Many of those who came for the massive building project stayed and began to build the state.

Alaska opened up to residents of the Lower 48 not too long after that and became a major destination for cruise ships bringing visitors to the wilds of Alaska in high luxury.

The Alcan Highway is now a paved, multi-lane super highway bringing convoys of cars, motorcycles and recreational vehicles to Alaska. But one of the most favorite methods of reaching the innermost cities and sights is by luxury cruise ship.

It’s still a fact of life in Alaska that many of its cities are unreachable by road simply because…there are no roads. Places such as Ketchikan are reached either by air or sea. Cruising up the Inside Passage waterfront cabins that dot the waterway almost all have both a boat and floatplane moored by the front entrance.

It must be somewhat oxymoronic for those residents to look out their front windows of cabins located in remote woodlands and watch as ships, such as the Celebrity Infinity, slowly wend their way back and forth along the Inside Passage.

Celebrity and other cruise lines have staked out Seattle as one of the preferred jumping off points for cruises to both Alaska and Canada’s western shore. SeaTac Airport is a modern jetport that brings incoming passengers to the southern edge of Seattle, a bustling metropolis in the Northwest.  It’s only a short hop from there to the cruise port and the waiting ships.

We opted for a detour and several extra days to visit friends on Bainbridge Island and take in some of the sights along Washington State’s western shore. You’ll find everything from rustic living to exclusive communities dotting the way with a host of excellent restaurants to choose from.

The hassle of boarding a cruise ship has never been a favorite pastime, from dropping your luggage in a sea of similar looking bags, to convincing ship’s representatives that you really are who you say you are. That has intensified with increased security at all airports and cruise terminals. Grin and bear it because all of this is for your benefit.

Celebrity has boarding down to a science and the long lines move along with a grace and speed that was unexpected as we prepared to board the Infinity. Previous Celebrity passengers, who belong to the line’s Captain’s Club, are afforded expedited registration and boarding.

A barman waits for those coming off the gangway to offer a welcoming drink. The only caveat here is that they take your cabin number and a charge is added to your cruise tab. So if you don’t want to pay, remember the drink may be welcoming but it is not complimentary.

By the time you arrive at your cabin much of the luggage has already been delivered. If yours hasn’t arrived yet, it will momentarily, so go inside, sit down and relax; finish off that drink handed to you as you boarded.

Cruise ships have a reputation for setting sail precisely at the appointed time and the Celebrity Infinity is no exception. She very smoothly slipped her moorings and headed north for the Inside Passage through Canadian waters and upwards to Alaska.

It’s summer time; the temperatures are warm and comfortable, the portholes in the restaurant are huge with an expansive view of the water and…the icebergs?

OK, so they are relatively small and wouldn’t have posed any danger to the Titanic, or even a moderately-sized powerboat for that matter. But here we are in July with a full field of ice floating by.

Announcements indicate that we are approaching the Hubbard Glacier and there is a sudden rush of passengers heading out to retrieve their cameras. Within minutes the railing is lined with budding photographers waiting for “that shot.”

We are fortunate to have been invited by the captain to view the glacier from the bridge. The location in the upper reaches of the Celebrity Infinity affords an excellent vantage point for images of one of nature’s wonders; and we are rewarded as huge chunks of the glacier explode from the main mass, falling into the sea in a proves known as “calving.” That’s how icebergs are formed.

The excitement from the gathered passengers below is palpable as the captain maneuvers the ship as close as legally possible to the Hubbard in order to afford the passengers the best possible view.

In the middle of the excitement a stowaway appears on the deck. A wayward seagull has decided that instead of flying around, he wants to sample life aboard a cruise ship. Like a Hollywood star, he stands amid a gaggle of amateur photographers, posing for the cameras. He’s there for a good half hour before tiring of the tourists and taking wing.

What an auspicious start to a cruise of both luxury and adventure. Coming up are stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, a helicopter trip to the Mendenhall Glacier and castles and gardens in Victoria, BC.