Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Aleutian Tale

Someone following our progress has commented that this is ‘a very different cruise’ – likely compared to the World cruise we embarked upon earlier this year.  I agree. As I wrote yesterday the on-board experience on a large ship is different than that of our previous trip.
Our itinerary is also to a very different part of the world. Alaska is fascinating and beautiful but in a very different way than the Southern Pacific / Indian Ocean experience. This is a more rugged, harsher world than we are used to
As we traverse the Northern Pacific we first kept track with the Aleutian Islands and have now diverged in a more South Westerly direction. I knew little about the Aleutians (other than where they were) and read a bit about them on the ship – What I learned (about a very small part of their history) is a story with much to teach.
The Aleutians are rugged volcanic islands stretching across from the Siberia / Japan intersection north of the Kurile Islands to Alaska.
They represent a likely land bridge that allowed for the migration of animals and the earliest humans from Asia to North America. Settlement in Villages was relatively sparse over the years but with an isolated and strong religious people.
The islands names don’t come easily to mind – Unimak, Unalaska, Atka, Kiska and Attu among many others but for one short period – between June 1942 and September 1943 - they were well known.
In June 1942, Admiral Yamamoto, as a follow-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, set in motion a plan to attack and occupy the Island of Midway with his powerful naval and amphibious force. As a feint he split part of his force to attack the Aleutians. Unbeknownst to the Japanese their communication codes had been broken and the plan was known to the US Pacific Fleet. With this prior knowledge, priority was given to the Midway battle and the Japanese attacked the Aleutians relatively unimpeded.
In the first week of June 1942 Japanese carrier aircraft bombed Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island (closer to the Alaska mainland) damaging oil storage tanks, shipping, anti aircraft positions and Fort Mears. Two days later (6th June) they invaded Kiska Island the next day Attu (two of the Islands closest to Japan). They garrisoned both islands and set up defenses for a counter attack including a complex tunnel system.
The impact on Aleutian natives was substantial. For their part the Japanese imprisoned the Attuans then in September shipped them to Hokkaido where they lived under dreadful conditions until they were released in October 1945. During their imprisonment 40% died and upon their return survivors were resettled.
In response to the invasion American authorities evacuated 881 Unagan from 9 villages in Unalaska and interned them for the duration in South East Alaska. Sadly their fate was no better and many died in this environment foreign to them with diseases such as TB they had no immunity to and with the loss of their community and structure.
The retaking of the Aleutians by US forces was even more traumatic (and in some ways poorly considered). First there was a vigorous bombing campaign by American B24 and B52 bombers from airfields rather remarkably constructed on inhospitable islands.
Then, in May 1943, 12,500 American troops landed on Attu Island to dislodge the invaders. As would be seen later in the South Pacific campaign the Japanese were well dug in and held high ground they fought ferociously and when the end was near conducted three suicidal banzai assaults. Only 28 Japanese survived. The cost was high, 2000 American Casualties – dead, wounded and variously disabled. The US troops had been poorly prepared – underestimated the opposition and insufficient supplies, food and inappropriate kit
Both sides learned from this experience – On July 28th The Japanese evacuated Kiska entirely as indefensible. On Aug 15th Allied troops landed on Kiska, this time in substantial force (35,000) ready for battle but once again with poor intelligence!  For 15 days fighting continued against an absent enemy – a phony invasion against a phantom enemy. The outcome was 25 deaths from friendly fire and 50 wounded before calm prevailed.
The outcome of this sad campaign was devastating for native Aleutians and their environment, probably inconsequential to the outcome of the war and probably played a large part in establishing this area as our first warning system base for the feared cold war apocalypse of the 1950s and 1960s.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

At Sea in the North Pacific

Since departing from Whittier to a simple but much appreciated fireworks show we have been sailing west – south – west to Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. The weather has been mixed – grey skies, intermittent rain and cold. The seas have been restless and occasionally we have had gale force winds and rough seas.

The ship we are on – the Diamond Princess – is one of the large ships that has become so popular with the cruise lines  ~2500 passengers; the result is that the ship feels crowded. Compared to our world cruise on the much smaller Pacific Princess there is a much more impersonal feel to the atmosphere. Those of you that followed our world cruise blog will remember how we took pictures of the buffet and every lunch was a theme with beautifully decorated displays – no such thing here. The buffet (the Horizon Court on Lido Deck – 14th) is set up to serve breakfast, then lunch then dinner to a large number of people. The food is good but you struggle to find a place to sit – the tables are packed.

After breakfast Jay and his friends play cards and we sit near them – doing a bit of work. We have become pretty good at finding places that are warmer and quieter. Many of the small restaurants that are specialty dinner restaurants or can be booked for “anytime dining” are set aside for card games or other activities so I have learned to bring my coffee or cappuccino to one of these ‘sanctuaries’ and do my own thing. As I write this I am sitting in the Santa Fe Dining room – with seating for 100 plus and there are only about 20 people – playing Mahjong.

The passengers are a diverse bunch – a large crowd from Germany / Austria who must have come on an organized trip – they have a special assistance desk in the lobby; also a large crowd of Chinese – predominantly from Vancouver – also on an organized jaunt to Beijing. The cruise must also have been heavily promoted in the UK and Australia because they also have big contingents. You do tend to meet folk from all over though as you take the seats you can at mealtime.

We chose to do formal dinner this trip. That means we go to the dining room every evening as a default. We have the 8.15pm seating which is definitely a stretch for me given the fact I normally have early dinner at home and watch a movie or collapse early. The designation formal doesn’t mean you have to dress up – there are only 5 “formal dining nights” where you dress up – men in tuxedos, suits, or jacket and tie. Women in gowns or formal wear. The rest of the time it’s a polo shirt and slacks.

The gym is one exception to the ‘overcrowded’ status – it is well equipped and well used but I am always able to get my elliptical machine(which was not always the case on the world cruise)

Our route has kept us parallel to and a modest distance from the Aleutian Islands – you can occasionally see one in the distance. I didn’t know much about the Aleutians but they are a chain of rugged, volcanic islands spreading across the ocean between Siberia / Japan and Alaska. They separate the Bering Sea from the North Atlantic. I’ll write a bit tomorrow about some interesting history I have been reading about them

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Prince William Sound

I’m not sure which Prince William it was but definitely not this one – apparently he was better known as “silly willy”. I’m sure Kate would never refer to this one as such.
Enough of that. We have spent the last few days sailing the Prince William Sound and exploring its inlets; seeing the glaciers and watching for wildlife and it provided a very appropriate finale to the Alaska portion of our cruise.

There were a couple of things that really stood out for me. The first is how fragile and potentially transient this beauty can be. It was in the Prince William Sound that the Exxon Valdez went aground spilling thousands of gallons of oil and despoiling all around it and beyond – when you are here you can see what a shame that was. Look at a glacier and you see soil and rock in its base – its hundreds of years old – and still impacts the valley it is on today. The locals talk about “Jesus Ice” – it’s the ice from a newly calved glacier – transparent from a lack of air; it melts differently than regular ice (more slowly) and came from snow that originally fell on these mountains a thousand plus years ago. Makes it a bit more clear to me what ‘paying for the sins of the fathers’ means – at least in this context. To the adventurous among you – a bucket list suggestion – a trip to Alaska but not necessarily as we have done it but maybe in stages with stops – like Sea Kayaking in this area.

As we sailed – both in the cruise ship in Friday and yesterday in a high speed catamaran – we heard about and saw the indigenous critters. The one I am / was most enamored with is the sea otter. It is part of the weasel family and grows to about 5 foot long weighing 90 pounds. The reason I loooove sea otters is that they are so cute. You see them lying on the surface of the ocean on their backs while they eat sea urchins and other morsels they find tasty. They have very little body fat (blubber) so to maintain body temperature they have to eat constantly for the calories they burn. Their fur is apparently the softest – more hairs per square inch. When this area was explored and the wildlife observed, the sea otter attracted attention because of this fur. Its impact was immediate. Sea otter fur became prized – especially by the Russian fur trade. So much so that they hunted them to virtual extinction. Which made it unprofitable for them to come here and hunt the little suckers. At the same time the Crimean War had bled their coffers dry. So the Russians looked at Alaska as a loss leader and offered it up for sale. The US (reluctantly apparently – it was known as Sewards Folly) bought it for some ridiculous sum of money ($7 million, I think). The cute sea otter was the beneficiary – a ban on its hunting (except by native Alaskans) was enacted and their population has rebounded in these waters. There’s a moral in there  somewhere.

We explored two Fjords – College Fjord from the cruise ship on Friday then Harriman Fjord on my catamaran excursion on Saturday. Edward Harriman – an American Railroad money man financed a scientific expedition that included experts in all the relevant scientific area – botanists, zoologists, geologists (and his entire family) were along for the trip. They did good work and clearly had fun. In College Fjord for example the team named each glacier – on the Northwest side after womens colleges – Holyoke, Barnard, Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith; on the Southwest side after mens colleges of the time – Amherst, Williams, Dartmouth, Yale. Harvard is the biggest, at the end of the fjord (and the only one still expanding – the irony) and sadly there was none I had any allegiance to – no South African College! No Chicago. No Cincinnati. No Stony Brook. aaah well.

We did see the Harvard Glacier calving though – three times and the sound and waves created were very impressive.
Yesterday in the catamaran we navigated the entire sound ending up at the Harriman Glacier

but sadly our trip was cut short by a passenger experiencing a medical emergency and requiring our immediate return to the ship to Whittier.

We docked in Whittier yesterday at the end of the Alaska leg of our cruise – 700 passengers got off and were replaced by those going on to Beijing or beyond.
Whittier turns out to be a little place – population 180 (all of whom live in one building – a relic of the military accomodations here).
Most people from the cruise went on an excursion locally or took the ride (2 hours) to Anchorage. Whittier itself had little to offer. 

The Taxidermist apparently does unspeakable things to bears. 

A tunnel provides a way to get from point “a” to “b”.

The (few) dockhands to see us off gave us a fireworks display from the terminal as we sailed off towards Northern Japan; which was a wonderful, spontaneous, unexpected and joyous farewell – words that could well describe the Alaska experience

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Day cruising Glacier Bay

Today was spent learning about an environment in which I have no experience – Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. As we continued north along the inside passage this was the next major ecosystem in South east Alaska situated adjacent to the Canadian border.

Glacier Bay is 65 miles long from the entrance at the narrows and as we entered the bay National Park Rangers embarked the ship an spent the day with us talking through the history, geology and ecology of the area. They are extremely knowledgeable and experienced and I was particularly impressed with one of the rangers who had spent many summer vacations (from her teaching job) kayaking each of the many glacial inlets.

Glaciers are living evolving structures and don’t allow for easy categorization. While many are indeed shrinking (most in fact) some continue to grow even now depending on the microclimate – snowfall and temperature.
In 1680, Glacier Bay did not exist but rather there was a broad valley on which Tlingit people lived with a glacier at its head.
The little Ice Age of the 1700s saw the rapid extension of the glacier to a maximum in 1750 forcing the local population to move and gouging out the contours of the present bay.
By 1795 the explorer George Vancouver documented that the glacier had retreated 5 miles back into the newly created bay; John Muir, 100 years later found a bay 40 miles longer and today tidewater glaciers are 65 miles up the bay.
Glaciers consist of ice, rock that has become incorporated with movement and water. The weight of the ice together with the movement and the abrasive force of the rock carves a path through any but the most resistant rock and as the glacier is calved or melts rock and soil are deposited
 The ship prepared us well for a day outdoors - that was where it was clearly best to see everything

They also provided superior cold weather gear for intrepid Alaska explorers
The scenery was spectacular - again I cant get used to the natural beauty 

We saw two of the most impressive but very different glaciers today – the Grand Pacific Glacier – brown in color and little in the way of blue ice because of the rock content and the famous Margerie Glacier – 250 foot tall with clear layering of rock and ice dating back hundreds of years.

We also passed valleys carved out by glaciers at different stages of recovery – at first covered in mosses and lichens, the bushy plants and grasses and finally with trees, eventually becoming forested. The shape of the valley and the rocky debris (scree) tell the story though.

After cruising the bay we passed whales, sea otters and sea lions; dropped off the park rangers and were on our northward way again.
Next stop college fjords.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Skagway – the romance of rail

The story of the Klondike Gold Rush is a famous one – for the most part a story of dashed dreams, suffering and lives lost – for a few, huge riches – in five months (July – November 1898) 10 million dollars of Klondike gold had been deposited to the US Mint, by 1900 a further $38 million. It was also the story of incredible human endurance and innovation. I came to Skagway planning to see results of this part of the tale and to ride the White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) railroad. Also I looooove trains.
The story starts in 1896 when George Carmack and two Indian companions found a small amount of gold in a creek in the Klondike. News of the find was reported (overreported) on July 17 1897 and the rush was on. Tens of thousands of men and women headed north from the Pacific west coast, up the inside passage to Dyea and Skagway to begin a 600 mile trek to the gold fields.
To get there they had two choices – the shorter steeper Chilkoot Trail from Dyea or the longer less steep trail out of Skagway – the White trail. The Klondike was in Canada and authorities required that each person carry a ton of supplies to ensure they were-self sufficient. Both trails converged on the interior lake country from where a 550 mile journey would begin on the Yukon River and end in the Klondike.
The tortuous trip made any alternate transportation very attractive. This was the time of the railroad. A few farsighted men had the idea, came up with the plan and the financing and on May 28th 1898 construction of the WP&YR began. It took engineering genius, 3500 brave workers, 450 tons of dynamite and $10 million to complete the 110.4 mile rail line in 2years, 2months and 2 days!! The challenges were enormous – the track climbs from sea level in Skagway to 3000 feet at the summit in 20 miles. The grade is steep, the path winding, the rail had to cross ravines on complex bridges and tunnels had to be blasted through solid granite.
Long after the gold rush the WP&YR carried ore and concentrates from the Klondike to be loaded on ore ships in Skagway. From the days of steam the company moved on in 1954 to diesel electric. In 1982 mining operations ceased and the line closed – to reopen in 1988 as an excursion railroad.
When I saw that Princess offered an excursion on the WP&YR from Skagway to the summit of White Pass I jumped at the opportunity – it was a 20 mile, 3 hour ride but with such a history how could I not do it – I loooove trains!
We docked in Skagway early this morning and you can see how close we docked to the train (and the mountain!). 

It was raining but no worries off we went to board – real conductors; great guides with a wonderful commentary.

The 80 passenger coaches were old and reconditioned or replicas and had a blazing fireplace for heat. 

The weather meant that the windows misted over so we had a tough time with some of the ‘photos but the view and the experience were hard to beat.

Along the way we passed the things that make such a story come to life – the cemetery in Skagway where the original residents are buried – the heroes and the villains; the beautiful mountains, waterfalls and ravines with their evidence of past avalanches – presenting the challenge. 

Alongside the railway in places you could see the trail used by the original prospective prospectors; narrow and dangerous. 

The tight curves the track had to take. The grade we had to follow – 3.9% in places.

The wooden bridges and the steel cantilevered bridge (no longer able to take the weight and replaced) 

then the tunnels 

and finally US Customs – 12 miles before the Canadian border; 

then, at the summit, the US Canadian border with the flags of the US, Alaska, Canada, British Columbia and Yukon Territory flying. 

At the top, the engines unhooked and took a branch line to what was the last coach; hooked up and off we went back down the mountain.
Back in Skagway we were reminded that these South Eastern Alaska towns are small and that some of the inhabitants are a bit quirky

Perhaps that’s what it takes?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A special day - Juneau, Alaska (from whence I could clearly see Russia)

Today was very special and, ironically, it was not as much about Juneau as it was about our chosen experiences.
Juneau itself is a lovely small city. It’s the capital city of Alaska – fourth in the state in population but very large in area – one of the largest cities in the country. It has all the expected facilities – Wal Mart, Home Depot, McDonalds, Supermarkets etc but it has no road / rail communication outside the city and everything has to be brought in by barge (or ‘plane) usually from Seattle.
Like Ketchikan it has heavy precipitation – rain predominantly but here also snow – and like Ketchikan its green, heavily wooded and located in a beautiful setting.
Mt Roberts formed the backdrop to our first view of Juneau with its cable car ride taking you to the top for a great vista. Unfortunately it did rain pretty much all day.

We had booked two tours today – the 'wrong bus' picked us up at the pier at 8am - with a great young driver/guide.

our first trip was out of Auke Bay on a catamaran cruise to go whale watching. We sailed out of port and into the Saginaw Channel. The water was a bit choppy and the wind and rain made it quite cold out on the ocean. Not long after passing the Point Retreat lighthouse on Admiralty Island 

we were told to keep an eye out for whales spouting and almost immediately we saw two on one side of the ship, three on the other and landed up with a crowd of humpback whales to observe. 

It was wonderful. The captain brought us quietly and slowly as close as he could to these huge animals and we watched them swimming along, breeching and diving with a flick of their huge flukes. 

I was only sorry my camera was not up to the task of catching it all. We were out on the water for three hours and could have spent more time. We also saw Steller Sea Lions and harbor seals in the same area and bald eagles (instantly recognizable by their white heads) in the tall trees lining the island shores. The whales were the show however. Absolutely wonderful

Our bus driver then drove us to the Mendenhall Glacier where we spent the next 45 min. This glacier is one of many that fill the valleys at the edge of the Juneau Icefield – an area the size of Rhode Island. The Ice that constitutes the glacier has accumulated over hundreds of years – with 100 inches plus of snow every year falling on the icefield and becoming compressed by the next years fall – and moving slowly but constantly down the valley through its own pressure and on a layer of melt at the bottom. 

As it reaches the run-off lake it calves and icebergs float in the lake melting slowly over time. 

The glacier itself is an unbelievably impressive sight in bulk and in its beautiful blue color that was particularly vivid in overcast conditions. 

I’m not sure about the impact of global warming but this glacier has been shrinking in size since the 1700s. It was an experience to see such a feature of nature in a relatively unspoiled environment.

we are becoming pretty good at dealing with weather in all its variations - the intrepid explorer / photographer looks elegant dressed in layers

But despite this elegance and sophistication still received jibes from the locals when she could not open the bear-proof garbage receptacle!!

Returning to Juneau and wandering the streets was a bit of an anticlimax – particularly as it involved visiting the shopping area but nothing could take away from the natural beauty we experienced here in Sarah Ps backyard