Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage

In 1879 John Muir travelled by steamship from California to Alaska, seeking firsthand experience with glaciers. Just a year or so behind the discovery of gold in the Klondike, and a year before the founding of Juneau, he would spend two seasons canoeing and hiking and cataloging the life of ice.

Our journey to Alaska began in Vancouver, BC. Stephanie’s parents had driven from South Carolina over the preceding weeks, and met us at the airport. Our room for the night in Vancouver was a short walk from Stanley Park, and rather than an afternoon nap I opted for a pre-cruise run along the marina and through the park, providing a welcome first whiff of that tidal salty kelpy evergreen smell that the Pacific Northwest ocean offers. Copious sushi for dinner brought everyone into a related seafood frame of mind.

In the morning we headed to the docks to board our boat, the Celebrity Century. My first cruise ship, larger than I was expecting but not overwhelming. Early arrivals, we had no wait and were soon aboard. The turnaround time for the boat is impressive, especially as would become clear upon our return in a week, as the boat had only arrived and disembarked its previous passengers 3 hours earlier.

Looking out to Vancouver

We set sail in the afternoon, and settled into our room on the 9th floor we watched the port recede and sped towards the channel between the mainland and Vancouver Island. Back in the land of mountains, it is still surprising to see how tall the island is – comparable mountain ranges on both sides of the ship.

Watching the mountains go by
Our only sunset

By morning we would be in fairly open ocean headed for the Inside Passage, the bulk of our cruise and the extent of Muir’s exploration. Whereas he would start at Fort Wrangell and recruit a Tlingit canoe and crew, along with a missionary co-adventurer, eventually making his way to Hoonah across from the entrance to Glacier Bay and then explore within Glacier Bay, we would head our 1600-person ship first for Hoonah.

Anchored at Hoonah, AK

Now a recently added destination for cruiseships due to the construction of “Icy Strait Point”, with the “world’s largest” zipline and a museum/shopping complex, this would be our only stop where we could not dock but instead anchored and rode the “tender” liferafts to shore. The town of Hoonah, a mile walk from the dock, is a tiny fishing village – most of the locals we saw on our walk were preparing/repairing the hulls of their trawlers in the boatyard. An elephant seal appeared for a moment, and it began to rain steadily as we returned to the ship.

Walking to Hoonah
Sun over Icy Strait Point

Our time on the ship settled into a relaxing pattern of leisurely mornings, lunch at the buffet, card games and drinks in the forward windowed lounge, reading and a rolling-of-the-ship-and-cocktail-induced afternoon nap, and dinner in the dining room. No thought of swimming or playing basketball as the days grew steadily windier, just relaxation between excitement at each port of call.

Lounging

The next morning found us turning into Yakutat Bay, headed towards Hubbard Glacier. The air immediately turned colder though we had two hours till we reached the glacier. Old glacial valleys interrupt the steep cliffs of the bay’s own old glacial form, and birds are everywhere along the shoreline, dots moving against the dark cascade-covered walls. The last mile was an ice field of tiny bergs that we picked our way slowly through, but already the glacier filled the horizon, a band of blue and gray under the low clouds. We navigated to within half a mile of the glacier and the captain slowly spun the boat in place as we watched for calving bergs from our balcony.

Making our way to Hubbard
Former glacier
Hubbard Glacier
At Hubbard Glacier

Returning ocean-side, we made our way overnight back into the passage and awoke to find ourselves nearly to Juneau. Our schedule here involved an early morning hike up to above Mendenhall Glacier, from just below the glacial runoff lake. (Another blogger who lives in Juneau recently posted lovely pictures of kayaking the lake.) Only 3 others from our boat joined us on this excursion: a mother and daughter from Toronto and an older gentleman from Dublin, who had never smelled a skunk nor skunk cabbage but was not afraid to investigate the latter. After climbing through the wet forest, our hike turned vertical and we scrambled up a series of rock pathways to higher views of the glacier before returning for lunch in town.

In the forest
Steep hike to Mendenhall
Above Mendenhall Glacier

When Muir returned to Alaska ten years later, steam cruise ships were already commonplace and the tell-tale signs of the industry have not changed much.

We arrived at Wrangell in the rain at 10:30 PM. There was a grand rush on shore to buy curiosities and see totem poles. The shops were jammed and mobbed, high prices paid for shabby stuff manufactured expressly for tourist trade. Silver bracelets hammered out of dollars and half dollars by Indian smiths are the most popular articles, then baskets, yellow cedar toy canoes, paddles, etc. Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook-maker, however ignorant.

Other ships waited to take our spot or to follow on with us towards Ketchikan as we left Juneau. The day’s journey would give us the best views of the narrow steep channels of the Inside Passage, ending in the Tongass Narrows for a rainy day in Ketchikan. Stephanie and I had another all-day excursion here, a bus ride to the northern end of the peninsula and a choppy ride across to the sheltered side of the Tatoosh Islands for a few hours of sea kayaking.

Along the way we encountered a Humpback Whale circling one of the islands and seals watching from the rocks, and while kayaking encountered Lion’s Mane jellyfish, mink, and the island walls revealed countless orange and purple starfish from the receding tide. (By this point in the trip, the numerous bald eagles barely registered.) The rain came and went, but we were suited up and dry in our double kayak. The paddling was as a loose group, and those of us more capable in the water followed a guide towards more open water, only to learn that true sea kayaking would have to wait as the swells started to match our own height and required tacking with the waves to remain steady and return to the sheltered coves and passages.

Sea kayaking
Damp from kayaking

Exhausted, we made it back to the ship in time to sail back towards Vancouver in the rain and rolling seas. A wonderful week spent with family and taking in the wilderness of Alaska admist the comfort of a cruise, I would love to do it all again.

Camping in the Poconos

For Memorial Day Weekend we ventured north a few hours through Lehigh valley and up the gorge to Hickory Run State Park for camping and hiking. We loaded up the car Saturday morning and with coffees in-hand and a sunny but cool forecast we puttered up Highway 309. After groceries and a scenic tour through Allentown, we stopped at a diner in Bowmanstown for sandwiches. The last leg of the drive dropped into Jim Thorpe, PA, named for the famed 1912 Olympian who went to the Carlisle Indian School located nearby. Twenty minutes beyond, we are deep in forest and turn into the campground.

Creekside campsite

Our campsite (#9) is at the very end of the large campground area, right next to Sand Spring Run – they call all the creeks around here runs, it’s pretty steep country – and among rhodedendrons and hemlocks. It is labeled a walk-in site, but only perhaps 20ft from the shared parking spot for the 10 walk-in sites. Three of the other nearby sites are occupied, the most neighbors we’ll have all weekend it turns out. After setting up camp and studying the map we decide for some light hiking in the remaining afternoon as a warmup to a full day of hiking Sunday.

Shades of Death trailhead
Happy to be camping

The campground runs along a few creek runs, one of which is dammed every quarter mile into small deep ponds. The CCC built some of these, or perhaps repaired them all from earlier industry? The Shades of Death trail follows this run down to the main park office, dropping 300ft in a mile and cutting through and around large stone outcroppings. It is clear that the ground throughout the park is a thin layer on top of constant rock and boulders.

Through the rock
Stametz Dam
In the trees

Dinner (hamburgers and humus), a campfire, and an early night shortly after sundown. Destined to be a cold night with a fierce gusting wind: low of 41°F, to be surpassed with 36°F the following night. We were incredibly thankful for the good campfire, winter hoodies, and for bringing our winter sleeping bags and flannel liners.

Up at 7am after things warmed up a little, coffee oatmeal and a quick fire. Our plan is for an early drive over to the trailhead for Boulder Field trail, and after packing water and a lunch of peanut butter banana sandwiches and apples, we arrive 5 minutes down the road, second car. It is cool and brightly sunny, and after an initial steep meadow with wild strawberry blossoms we dive into a beech forest, a rocky trail and endless undergrowth of ferns. The trail steadily but barely climbs (a few hundred feet over 3.5 miles) and at points seems liable to be swallowed back into the forest except for the bright yellow blazes.

Beech forest, Boulder Field trail
Ferns a-swooshing
Hemlock forest, Boulder Field trail

Occasionally the forest darkens into hemlock and rhododendrons – it is through one of these after 2 hours that we encounter the first other people on the trail, and then suddenly find ourselves on the edge of the boulder field. It is imposing and a challenge to take in – the averge boulder is about a foot across, making the full 400ft across like picking your way across a creek, with occasional large boulders and some natural waist-deep depressions from the sorting of the stones. The families we meet had crossed it from the parking lot on the far side, but we’re going to save our energy for the return trip and only venture a little into the field. Lunch and soaking up some of the sun-warmed stone’s heat – the breeze has picked up again though and the relative warmth of the woods calls us for the return hike.

Up to my waist in boulders
(Photo by Stephanie)
At Boulder Field
Made it!
Drawing the boulder field
(Photo by Stephanie)

We finished the early afternoon with a quick hike on the other side of the trailhead down to Mud Run and Hawk Falls, a perfectly fine but heavily visited falls. A total of 8.5 miles for the day, we returned to camp to rest our feet. Surprising for the middle of the holiday weekend, all but one of our neighbors had left so for a few hours we were the only tent we could see. One of them, a large group of college kids who clearly had been too cold left a great large stump of firewood that would form the core, along with the remnants of our Christmas tree saved for this camping trip, of a bright warm fire all evening. I hiked down our creek a few hundred feet and found a beautiful falls right below us.

Falls
Falls

We played cards, made potatoes and sausages and s’mores, and again turned in shortly after the sun left us in the cold night. Returned home this morning refreshed and steeped in campfire smoke. Good camping.

Braving the flu with hikes, Greek food, and movies from the 1980s

One of the unexpected challenges to living in a small apartment is the cyclical nature of colds and flus. Just when one of us starts to feel better, the other starts displaying symptoms. The bags of cough drops, boxes of Kleenex, and plastic cupfuls of Nyquil move from one nightstand to the other, and back again. It’s been a sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching few weeks of limited rest coupled with important work deadlines.

Despite this, we’ve enjoyed a few new places in Philly worth sharing. Our neighbor recommended Kanella to us, and last Friday night we finally gave it a try. We started our meal with Bureki (fillo pastry parcels stuffed with feta and thyme, drizzled with thyme honey, and served with roasted beets) and a less memorable roasted pumpkin appetizer. The Bureki was so amazing that anything standing next to it was bound to be forgotten.

Our entrees were vegetable moussaka and a goat stew with fried okra that was “smack yo’ mama” good! Definitely a great night!

Luke enjoying the Goat Stew

We also took another afternoon hike, this time along the trails of Ridley Creek State Park.

Sunny fall day

Friendly Monsters

Last bits of changing leaves

Other than a not-very-well-organized running event, the trails were empty. This meant that we not only felt like we could happily lose ourselves in the woods, but that also we’d occasionally encounter a neon-wearing athlete looking confused and exhausted. It was fun to watch them approach from far off, and disappear equally fast over the next hill. It reminded me of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, popping onto the scene just long enough to announce he’s late before hurriedly continuing on.

Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

As a side note, does anyone remember the 1980s TV version of “Alice in Wonderland? The cast was incredible – Carol Channing, Sammy Davis, Jr., Scott Baio, and (my favorite) Lloyd Bridges as the White Knight? Amazing. If you saw it as a kid, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you didn’t, there is no point watching it now. I’m sure it will just seem silly and outdated.

It’s sometimes hard to introduce something you loved as a child to your adult friends (and husband). I saw The Goonies about nine blu-gillion times growing up, and so whenever I think about it, I’m transported back to that happy place of Chester Copperpot and inhalers. Whenever I try to encourage Luke to (finally) see it with me, though, I know in the back of my mind that it won’t be as meaningful to a 30 year old as it was to a 12 year old. He won’t develop a secret crush on Sean Austin, think Martha Plimpton’s wit is so great that it requires rewinding (yes, rewinding) and repeating until you’ve got it perfectly mimicked, or be absolutely terrified of playing the wrong key on the skeleton piano before Mama Fratelli’s boys grab you.

Photo credit: Nerds at the Cool Table

I’ll still watch it, though. Especially on sick days, with my go-to blanket and a big bowl of soup. Or popcorn.

A walk in the woods

This semester is flying by! I cannot believe Trick-or-Treaters are out, and that it is only a month until Luke and I travel Down South for Thanksgiving with our parents. It’s all really exciting, but also a little overwhelming.

My first attempt at teaching has had a lot of ups and downs. I know this is a normal experience, but it’s not yet a comfortable one. I’m learning so much about how to prepare lectures, engage students with the material, choose reading assignments that provoke discussion, organize a class (and then reorganize it when it is not working), establish class policies and how/when to bend them. I still feel like I have a long way to go before I’m “seasoned,” and the fact that we’re already halfway through the semester is simultaneously a relief and strong motivation for ending the year on a good note.

With all of these thoughts weighing on my mind, Luke took me on a beautiful hike this morning in Fairmont Park. We meandered along the trails, climbing over logs, bouncing off of rocks, sliding on the leaves covering the ground, and breathing in the amazing smells of Fall. It was just the break I needed – a perfect mix of physical exertion, quiet calm, and clearing my head by talking and talking to my patient husband.

Last night, we danced and danced to Brown Bird and Yonder Mountain String Band at a venue just down the street from us. Taking time out of our normal routine to dance and to talk, to play outdoors and to hold hands…this weekend has reminded me how important it is to relax and to breathe before gearing up for whatever is next.

Brown Bird

Yonder Mountain String Band