Sailing To Alaska To Relax, But Learning A Little On The Way

Posted August 14th, 2015

There are three basic types of vacation in my household. A family vacation entails going to visit far-flung relatives. A learning vacation means exploring a new place with my husband, with lots of sightseeing and guidebook consulting. And a non-learning vacation requires relaxing on a lounge chair near a pool or ocean, with a good book and a margarita.

I thought the cruise we took last summer through Alaska's stunning Inside Passage would fall in the last category – we'd sit on our stateroom balcony and watch the nice scenery go by. But somehow, I ended up accidentally learning a few things. Here are five of them.

It Ain't Easy Getting Rich

I never knew much about the Klondike Gold Rush until we arrived in Skagway. More than a century before, hordes of prospectors arrived in this tiny port town and its neighbour, Dyea, after the Seattle Intelligencer newspaper ran the headline "GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!" to report a discovery of the precious metal in Canada's Yukon Territory.

More than 30,000 people, including women and children, flocked to Dyea to climb the 1,500-step Golden Staircase that was cut into an icy foothill. From there, the gruelling 53-kilometre Chilkoot Trail would take them to the Yukon River – with another 805 kilometres ahead of them to reach the goldfields.

Others chose the 'easier' White Pass Trail out of Skagway but neither was for the faint of heart. Some pioneers made multiple trips in order to muster the 907 kilograms of supplies that Canadian officials required to enter the country. Thousands of pack animals died on the path; just look for the spot on the map marked Dead Horse Gulch.

The journey got a bit easier in 1900 after investors spent $10 million to build a 177-kilometre railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon. Today, that same White Pass & Yukon Route railway offers cruise ship passengers an informative and scenic ride through beautiful but unforgiving mountainous terrain.

Bonus trivia: As a Philadelphia resident, I felt a burst of pride after learning two steam engines that sometimes pull the train were made at the city's now-defunct Baldwin Locomotive Works – nearly 4,667 kilometres from Skagway. Decades later, they're still chugging.


Be prepared: What To Pack For Your Canada And Alaska Cruise

Feeling hungry? Eating Your Way Around Alaska's Inside Passage


That Glacier Looks Blue

A tour through Glacier Bay National Park offered us breathtaking views. Many glaciers have a gorgeous blue tint because of the way light plays off them: The tightly packed ice absorbs red rays in the spectrum but not blue ones.

Margerie Glacier was jaw-dropping. Standing about 25 storeys above the waterline, it extends for another 30 metres below. It appears impressive enough from afar but you don't truly understand the scale until you see the glacier calve, when a chunk of ice breaks off. The splash sounds like thunder because the fragment is much bigger than it seems.

You Can't Drive To Juneau

The capital is accessible only by plane or boat. That fact, and the city's relatively small population (32,000), has caused periodic debates about moving the seat of government to the more populous Anchorage region (300,000). Anchorage is on Alaska's limited road system, accessible via car to more than half the state's population.

Juneau is hardly the only Alaska community unreachable on four wheels, which explains the state's relatively high number of pilot licences. Float planes were a common sight during our cruise, and you can book sightseeing flights in many places.

Rain Is Just Another Word For 'Liquid Sunshine'

We arrived in Juneau during a light drizzle so I stupidly thought our scheduled biking excursion would be cancelled. Ha! The guides just handed us waterproof pants and jackets and off we pedalled to see the Mendenhall Glacier.

I've since discovered Juneau gets about 1.5 metres of rain a year, so life would be pretty impossible if residents bowed to inclement weather. Ironically, we enjoyed brilliant blue skies a few days later in Ketchikan, which gets four metres of precipitation annually.

Nature Is The Best Show On Earth

The sun in Ketchikan spotlighted an amazing phenomenon on land: Hordes of salmon fighting the currents in Ketchikan Creek to return to their spawning grounds. We gawked and marvelled as the fish threw themselves up a rocky waterfall.

Though I've often heard the phrase 'like salmon swimming upstream' to describe going against the flow, I didn't really appreciate the sentiment until then.


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