Alaska Cruise | Cruise Day 7: Victoria, British Columbia

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

cruiseroute

Day 7 was the last full day of the cruise and it definitely started with some end-of-vacation dread on my part. I hate getting bummed out that vacation is ending even before it’s over. I truly existed in a bubble on this particular vacation (kind of rare for me!) and had a hard time thinking that it would be over soon.

But, we made the most of it, enjoying a leisurely morning on the ship, relaxing and vegging (watching movies, walking around, playing cards) as we did every other day. We wouldn’t be arriving in our port du jour until 6pm so we had a lot of time during the day to soak up the last day of this awesome cruise.

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At 2PM we went to the main theater to check out the last big show of the cruise – Tim Kaminski’s stand up. The Stardust Theater was packed; there was not an empty seat in the house. The capacity is 1,000 people which is about a third of all the guests on the cruise. Pretty incredible turnout. Tim’s show was great. I wasn’t sure what to expect humor-wise because the people on the cruise were so diverse, but he did a lot of cruise humor which actually was really entertaining.

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At 5:45PM we cruised into the Inner Harbor of Victoria, British Columbia and disembarked promptly at 6:15PM after the boat cleared Canadian customs.

A sidenote here about embarking/disembarking on the cruise ship that I don’t think I’ve mentioned before: Our entire trip was on time (like sharply on time) everywhere we went. If the scheduled arrival was at 8AM, we we docked at 8AM. If the assigned departure was at 2PM, the ladders and tethers were up at 2PM. This was mostly due to the exceptional staff of the Norwegian Pearl, the security, and the ease of the process, but also the passengers cooperation. Each time we unloaded and loaded at a port, I was super impressed at how smooth that process went.

Victoria was a visual shock when we arrived – it was an actual city! with buildings! tall ones! – it looked unlike any other port we had visited. Again, I cannot get over the weather we got on this trip. Total dumb luck but I’m still thrilled.

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(Bizarro Harry Reid and I had a wonderful time in line together.)

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Our time in port was limited to 6PM-11PM, the shortest stop of our trip. The only thing we had planned for our visit to Victoria was to hang out with my dad and his wife, Ildi. My dad lives in Vancouver so I only see him about once a year. When we booked the cruise ages ago I let him know we’d be somewhat close by (a few hour ferry ride for them) and we made plans to get together.

We met up with them in the port parking lot and headed to dinner. We went to Blue Crab Seafood House right on the water. Our meal was delicious – super fresh seafood – and an absolute meal highlight of the trip. Cruise food is pretty lackluster (a full post coming shortly on that) so eating off the boat was a treat!

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My dad and Idli have been to Victoria many times so they toured us around the city and downtown areas until we had to go back to the ship. We first checked out the British Columbia Parliament Buildings.

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The grounds of the Parliament Buildings cover 12.5 acres and include gorgeous neo-Baroque style buildings, standing since 1898, and lush gardens.

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A statue of Queen Victoria stands on the front lawn.

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As does this magnificent tree. I caught the most gorgeous sunset light in its branches.

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The Inner Harbor was really lovely – I could have stood there all day and people watched. We caught the sunset just around 9PM which was beautiful.

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If the Parliament Building is the most historic landmark in Victoria, the Fairmont Empress Hotel is a close second.

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The hotel opened in 1908 to serve business people and tourists. The hotel is an Edwardian, château-style hotel, has almost 500 rooms, and overlooks Victoria’s Inner Harbor. After decades in use, debate over the hotel’s dilapidated condition began in the mid 1960’s. Locals argued about whether or not it should be torn down and replaced with a flashier high rise hotel. Instead, the Empress underwent a $4 million renovation and refurbishment in 1966. In 1989, over $45 million was spent in additional restoration on the hotel. In 2014 the hotel was sold to new owners who are now investing $30 million in, yet another, renovation project.

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The Empress is well known for its classic Victorian afternoon tea service in The Tea Room. They serve over 800 guests daily in the summer months! We walked by the Tea Room as we toured through the hotel and it was exquisite. That’s definitely going on my bucket list!

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We walked around downtown for an hour or so, taking in the sights and sounds.

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We got some gelato for dessert on our walk. I got chai latte gelato which was insanely good. I have already recreated this recipe at home (stayed tuned for that recipe blog!).

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Our final stop in downtown Victoria was Rogers’ Chocolates. The first Rogers’ chocolates were made by Charles Rogers in 1885. In 1891 he opened this shop downtown and it was an instant success. Rogers’ Chocolates now operates a 20,000 sq. ft. factory, nine retail stores, and serves over 50 countries. I totally see why – the chocolate was decadent and delicious.

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At 10PM we headed back to the cruise ship and said our goodbyes. It was awesome to see my dad and I can’t wait to go back to Victoria someday, it is a beautiful city and we fell in love with it.

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Stay tuned for our final vacation day in Seattle!

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Alaska Cruise | Cruise Day 6: Ketchikan, Alaska

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

cruiseroute

On Day 6 we arrived in Ketchikan bright and early. Ketchikan, like both Juneau and Skagway, is surrounded by water and mountains, and is stunningly beautiful. The city is located on Revillagigedo Island and is bordered by the Tongass National Forest. Ketchikan has a population of about 8,000 and is nicknamed the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Industries here are similar to those in Juneau and Skagway – government, fishing, lumber, and tourism.

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We got off the cruise ship at 9AM for our Ketchikan port excursion called Lighthouse, Totems, and Eagles. It was a 3 hour boat ride through the Clarence Straight and Tongass Narrows to see – you guessed it – a lighthouse, totems, and bald eagles!

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Our captain, Captain Rob, was an older gentleman with a salty sense of humor but clearly knew this area like the back of his hand and had a genuine love of Ketchikan. He was knowledgeable, funny, and educational.

Within minutes of setting sail we began to see eagles. They were everywhere! All told on this excursion we probably saw 30 eagles. Here are the best photographs I snapped with my telephoto lens:

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As you likely know, the bald eagle is both the national bird and national animal of the US. Bald eagles were once on the brink of extinction in the US however, they have recovered significantly over the last 20 years. They were removed from the US’s list of endangered species in 1995 and transferred to the list of threatened species, later to be removed from that list in 2007. Alaska plays a large part in that story as it holds the largest bald eagle resident population at somewhere between 40,000-50,000.

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Mom eagle in her nest, guarding her babies:

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Bald eagles build the largest nest of any North American bird and the largest tree nests ever recorded for any animal species.

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Another feature (totally unadvertised but pretty amazing) of our excursion were the waterfront homes we saw all along the coastline. Each of them were completely unique and distinct from each other with varying architectural styles and landscaping. John and I decided that we may want to rethink our retirement goals and look into buying one of the beauties in another 30 years.

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Ketchikan has the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles, located throughout the city at four major locations: Saxman Totem Park, Totem Bight State Park, Potlatch Park, and the Totem Heritage Center. Our boat tour offered amazing waterfront views of Totem Bight State Park.

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In addition to the magnificent totems at the park, you can also see the Clan House, a representation of what a typical Native American community village house would look like. Totems are inspired by nature and are used to tell stories (not worship the carvings, which is a common misunderstanding). These specific totems reflect the great reverence native peoples had for the abundance of this area (salmon, eagles, whales).

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The final feature of the tour was the Guard Island Lighthouse. We circumnavigated the island it is on and began our return trip back to the dock.

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As we sailed back to shore we enjoyed some snacks provided by the crew (super yummy salmon dip that John got the recipe for, crackers, and fruit) and enjoyed the scenery. We passed about 12 different islands on this trip, most inhabited only by wildlife.

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One final surprise was some wildlife we saw (in additions to eagles, of course). We saw three orca…

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…and also a bunch of sea lions (crazy camouflaging!). So cool!

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John and I totally fell in love with Ketchikan. Just standing on the deck of the boat in the late morning sun, warm wind whipping through my hair and jacket, was such a treat.

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The beauty of this place cannot be understated.

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Again, if you have never been to Alaska I cannot recommend it enough. Even though we traveled via cruise ship, we spent enough time in each port on our excursions to really get a sense of Alaska and all of her splendor.

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When we returned to downtown Ketchikan we had about 15 minutes to walk around before getting back on the cruise ship.

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Downtown Ketchikan is full of wildflowers, so pretty!

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It wouldn’t have been right to leave the “Salmon Capital of the World” without stocking up on salmon at Sockeye Sam’s. I didn’t take a picture of John’s bounty because it was of embarrassing proportions (only half kidding!). He’s already replicated Captain Rob’s recipe at home!

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Later in the afternoon we went to a comedy workshop in Spinnaker Lounge with resident comedian, Tim Kaminski. Tim is old school, mentored by Jonathan Winters and Del Close. John’s obviously a seasoned performer from his years at Improv Boston, and has taught me a lot about comedy, but Tim’s a lifer in the industry and his perspective was super interesting.

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That night we, once again, headed out into the vast Pacific for the penultimate leg of our journey. Onward to Canada!

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Stay tuned for Cruise Day 7 in Victoria, British Columbia!

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Alaska Cruise | Cruise Day 5: Glacier Bay National Park

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

cruiseroute

Day 5 started like this:

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When you really sit back and think about it, it’s really trippy to be in the middle of nowhere on a boat. There were a few times on the trip where I’d look out off the balcony and see absolutely nothing. In fact, exactly this scene above: water to the horizon line with nothing in between. Since we’ve never traveled this way before it was strange but thrilling in a way. There is obvious beauty in observing the country speeding past the windows of a car. I never imagined I would find that same beauty steadily gliding through water on a behemoth ship.

The reason this particular weather wasn’t welcome on Day 5 was because this was our one full day on the ship, cruising through Glacier Bay National Park. Nonetheless I was ready in our room to view the park from our balcony. There were viewing areas all over the ship but I preferred to view from the comfort of our room – that’s half the reason why we had a balcony after all! Also, I should note, there are no roads that lead directly to Glacier Bay so if you’re a National Park nut like we are, you’ll need to visit by boat or plane.

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At 6am that morning five National Park Service rangers from Glacier Bay National Park took a small boat over to our cruise ship (and then climbed up a rope ladder!) to join us for the day. Four of the rangers camped out in Spinnaker Lounge, the highest deck lounge with 360 degree views, with park materials, answering questions, and giving talks about the park.

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The fifth ranger stayed in the bridge with the ship captain and narrated our journey through Glaceir Bay over the PA system (which was also audible from a specific channel on our TV).

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One of the first things we noticed upon entering the park was this divide in the water: the blue vs. brown. The park ranger noted that this is an estuary – the brown water is fresh water, colored by silt, coming off of the melting glaciers and the blue water is salt water coming in from the Pacific Ocean/Gulf of Alaska. This combination of water types provide a unique and thriving ecosystem in Glacier Bay, rich with nutrients for phytoplankton and other microorganisms (note the seagulls, they are here to feast!).

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Federal legislation established Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in 1980. Glacier Bay was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

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In total Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is about 5,130 square miles. The park includes 600,000 acres of federally protected marine ecosystems in Alaska. Within the park there are two Tlingit ancestral homelands that are of cultural significance to their existing communities. Glacier Bay is home to 15 tidewater glaciers, descending from high snowcapped mountains into the bay and create spectacular displays of ice.

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The earliest traces of humans at Glacier Bay date back 10,000 years. Physical evidence is scarce though because the area has been glaciated so much that all sources of evidence have been lost. Jean-François de Galaup was the first European to explore the region of Glacier Bay in 1786. Since its discovery there has been a long line of distinguished scientists/naturalists to visit the park, perform research, and bring this incredible area to the world’s attention. Glacier Bay was visited by George Vancouver in 1794 during his Vancouver Expedition. John Muir visited Glacier Bay in 1879 to learn about glaciers as a means of understanding the glaciated landscape of the Yosemite Valley. Muir’s writings attracted William Skinner Cooper in 1916, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, who saw the retreating glaciers as an opportunity to study plant life on the recently exposed land.

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John Muir wrote about Glacier Bay with such a spiritual and lyrical style that he changed America’s national perception of Alaska from one of daunting cold to enchanting beauty. In the 1870s, he wrote:

“I will follow my instincts, be myself for good or ill, and see what will be the upshot. As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”

Our ranger/narrator was obviously cut from the same cloth, as her depiction of the park as a divine and sacred place was intensely moving. She read stirring quotes to illustrate her points and offered deeply philosophical reflections about the resiliency and promise of nature.

By the time we arrived at Margerie Glacier, I was so lifted by this place that I couldn’t help but tear up. “That’s a strange reaction!” I said out loud to John. But I don’t think so now. All of Earth’s creations should take our breath away. I hope nature always moves me the way Alaska did. It is curious and splendid and inspirational and graceful. And I want to always see it with wonder.

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Margerie Glacier is 1 mile wide at its base and 350 feet tall (250 above water, 100 feet below water), and 20 miles in length (upward into the mountains).

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“One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation. That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.”
– John Muir, Notes of a Naturalist, 1879

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Again, the deep rich blue color of glacier ice is due to the way the snow has fallen and compressed in layers, air bubbles being squeezed out, ice crystal size increasing, and light absorption of all color wavelengths except blue, which is the remaining color we can see.

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When the guided tour was over John and I got lunch. At 1PM Ranger John gave a presentation in the amphitheater about Glacier Bay, its history, and its future which was wonderful. He spoke for an hour on the native Tlingit people of the region, the flora and fauna of Glacier Bay, the oceanography of the area, and climate change impacting Glacier Bay.

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As the ship turned to head out of Glacier Bay we got a nice view down the John Hopkins Inlet. We could see the John Hopkins and Lamplugh Glaciers off in the distance but my pictures weren’t great because the weather was so terrible.

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As we were cruising along, just outside of the park, we saw a breaching humpback whale far off in the distance. Another theme of this trip was the constant surprises. As if seeing a handful of magnificent glaciers wasn’t enough in one day, let’s just end it with another whale sighting. This is what it is to be in Alaska.

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Even if I never make it back here, I will carry this place, Glacier Bay and Alaska altogether, with me for the rest of my life.

“One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature – inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1869

Stay tuned for Cruise Day 6 in Ketchikan!

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Alaska Cruise | Cruise Day 4: Skagway, Alaska

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

cruiseroute

We sailed from Juneau to Skagway overnight and arrived in Skagway at 7am on Day 4. Our first view of Skagway was very much like Juneau – a small fjord with the town nestled in the crook of the mountains and right on the water.

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Skagway was founded in 1897 and has a current population of 920. During the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896, Skagway boomed with prospectors and by June 1898, it was the largest city in Alaska with a population of 10,000. The sudden influx of visitors and residents brought with it lawlessness and dubious citizens – prostitutes, swindlers, and con men (a lot of this culture is maintained in the downtown area for tourist interest). In 1898 a 14-mile railroad was constructed called the White Pass and Yukon Route. Unfortunately gold was never found in the Skagway-Dyea region and around 1900 the rush was over. Skagway’s economy had all but collapsed. The main industry in Skagway now is tourism with roughly 1 million visitors annually, 3/4 of which arrive on cruise ships.

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One of the biggest attractions in downtown Skagway is Rotary Snowplow No. 1, seen below. It was used to help clear the train tracks of snow during the harsh winters in Skagway. It is pushed by two helper engines and its 10 blades use centrifugal force to clear the snow (probably could have used one of these in Boston with our 100+ inches of snow this winter). The plow was built in 1898 by the Cooke Locomotive and Machinery Company of Paterson, New Jersey for the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad and was retired in 1965 (cool video of it in action here).

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Skagway’s downtown is very cute but relatively small – mostly touristy shops.

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The buildings were pretty incredible though and had a really nice vintage feel.

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Our excursion for the day while we were in Skagway was a visit to the Sled Dog & Musher’s Camp in Dyea, Alaska. A very small group of us (about 15) were picked up by Kyle from Alaska Excursions and driven to the camp (about 30 minutes from Skagway). Kyle gave us a very comprehensive background on the area and the histories of Skagway and Dyea on the drive.

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The landscape was gorgeous. Dyea was a former gold rush town as well but there is literally nothing left to show for it. All of the buildings and roads have become forest again so it’s now an actual ghost town. My favorite thing about the area was all of the wild orchids everywhere.

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To get up to the sled dog camp we had to get off the bus at their base camp and load on to this refurbished German unimog military truck. The camp owns a few to traverse the steep and rocky terrain to and from the camp (which is about one mile, straight up, from the base camp).

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Halfway up the road there was a scenic overlook of the Dyea tidal flats and Taiya River where we were able to get out and take some pictures.

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We loaded back in to the unimog and finally arrived at the sled dog camp!

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This camp is home to mushers who bring their dogs to train for various winter races. All of the dogs at the camp are owned by year-round mushers training for speed races, the Yukon Quest, and the Iditarod.

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The mushers bring their dogs to Alaska for the summer to weight train. They spend their time here working out by hauling 2,000 lb. summer sleds (you’ll see below). The sleds they normally pull during speed races or the Iditarod are roughly 400 lbs. so they put on serious muscle training in the summer. In the winter the mushers will take their dogs to the midwest or western states to train on endurance/long distance running.

At the mushers camp we learned all about the race logistics (nice summary here), the rules and regulations, and how the dogs are cared for. It’s worth mentioning here that these dogs are true athletes. The dogs in the camp are typically Alaskan huskies – crossbreeds of Siberian huskies, hounds, setters, spaniels, and German shepherds. The breeding of these dogs has been very intentional, their mixes being chosen for strength, stamina, speed, tough feet, endurance, and a good attitude. These dogs are not forced to be runners – they are working dogs and genuinely love to run, and you can clearly see that when you meet them. The mushers confirmed too that if any dog shows any signs of disinterest in the sport from a young age, they are adopted out immediately. They don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to – but these animals naturally want to work.

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Time for a dog sled ride!

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Each sled holds 6 riders and one musher, and is pulled by 16 dogs. The musher calls out commands to stop and start, to make turns, and what speed to run at. John and I sat in the front of our sled and were amazed by these dogs!

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(Again, full screen mode is best for the video!)

During our sled ride the musher stopped to take some pictures of us in the sled with all of the dogs included!

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After our 1 mile sled ride the musher introduced us to all 16 dogs!

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She told us each of their names and a little bit about their personalities. The two in the middle below are the two who were in the very back of the sled we were on. They are brothers and are super playful with each other.

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Each dog was so sweet, friendly and loving, with such distinct characters, and were just genuinely happy animals. They loved to be pet and actively sought our attention. These dogs clearly have a good life!

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After that we were headed to the best part of the camp – PUPPIES! The sled dog camp also breeds the dogs and has a special area just for the puppies and their moms. It’s a win-win for them too since visitors like us actually help to socialize the dogs, which is essential if they want to be successful racing athletes.

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OMG PUPPY.

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I cannot even put into words how precious and adorable these puppies were. They were so chill and relaxed too. We totally fell in love.

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This little guy was a kisser!

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After we spent as much time with the puppies as we could we headed back on the unimog, back down to base camp, bussed to downtown Skagway, and back on the cruise ship. It was a full day of fun and adventure – just like vacation should be. AND PUPPIES!

Stay tuned for Cruise Day 5 in Glacier Bay National Park!

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Alaska Cruise | Cruise Day 3: Juneau, Alaska

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

cruiseroute

Day 3 began with brilliant weather so I decided to check out the jogging track on the upper deck of the cruise ship.

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I walked laps around the track for an hour, listening to tunes, people watching, and taking in the gorgeous scenery.

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We hung out for the rest of the morning and I spent some time on our balcony, watching the morning fog roll over the mountains nearby.

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Around 2PM we arrived in Juneau. Juneau is the capital of Alaska and is actually the second largest city in the US by area (3,250 square miles). Despite its size in land, the population is only about 32,000.

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Juneau is technically not an island but, because there are no roads connecting the city to the rest of Alaska or the rest of North America, it acts as one with all incoming and outgoing travel done either by plane or boat. Juneau is nestled at the base of Mount Juneau, right off Gastineau Channel. Juneau was the original home of the Native American Tlingit tribe. In 1880, gold rushers settled a town site that would later become Juneau. Alaska was granted statehood in 1959.

The economy of Juneau is supported mainly by government, the fishing industry, and the tourism industry. It was estimated that in 2005, 1 million visitors came to Juneau on cruise ships between May and September. During our entire trip I marveled at how remote Alaska is and really grasped how much tourism supports this part of the country.

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Downtown Juneau was pretty small, mostly touristy shops and restaurants. I really wished John had bought this eagle shirt! (you know he loves him some eagles)

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At 2PM we got off the ship to go on our first port excursion. The excursion was called Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Quest and all told was about six hours.

We loaded into buses alongside 200 other people from the ship and headed toward Mendenhall Glacier (a 20 minute drive from downtown Juneau). I had never seen a glacier before so I was pretty pumped. Mendenhall Glacier is a mountain/alpine glacier and was named in 1891 after Thomas Corwin Mendenhall.

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The flora of surrounding Tongass National Forest is so beautiful. Lush, green, abundant; quintessential Pacific Northwest.

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We stopped first at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. It was pretty small but they feature a video on the evolution of the glacier which was super interesting and excellently produced. They had interactive models, a lookout area, and a gift shop.

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Then we headed down the Photo Point Trail to get a closer look at Mendenhall Glacier. Sidenote: there are a few trails around the area to get different vantage points of the glacier but since we were short on time, we opted for the scenic overlook trail not too far from the Visitor Center.

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Even at a distance, Mendenhall Glacier was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.

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One of the most fascinating things we learned about Mendenhall Glacier, and all of the glaciers we saw on this trip (more coming!), was why they appear to look blue. Basically it’s because the snow falling on the glacier is compressed, the majority of the air bubbles are squeezed out, the ice crystal size increases, and the light wavelengths absorbed are red, orange, yellow, and green so that the remaining color we see is this rich blue color.

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Unfortunately, because of climate change, Mendenhall Glacier has been in retreat since the end of the Little Ice Age in the 1700’s and has receded over 2.5 miles since 1500, with 1.75 miles of that being since 1958. As you may know, the EPA recently released a report outlining the scientific and economic impact of unchecked global climate change (spoiler alert: bad things). Climate action and preservation now can impact the future – I can’t stand the thought of Mendenhall Glacier having a finite lifespan.

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When our hour was up we got back on the bus and were driven to Auke Bay to go on our whale watch with Allen Marine Tours. There were about 30-40 people on this tour with us, much more intimate than the hordes at Mendenhall Glacier.

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I was really excited for this tour. The description guaranteed whale sightings (and other wildlife) and the weather was incredible (sunny and 70 degrees). I was also really eager to just see Alaska. Of course we’d already gotten magnificent views from the cruise ship but this felt different – this felt like a more up close and personal glimpse at Alaska’s true character.

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The boat ride began in Auke Bay/Stephen’s Passage, went up north through Saginaw Channel, and out to the Lynn Canal. The scenery was simply breathtaking – snowy mountains in the distance, big fluffy cumulus clouds overhead, pristine blue water around us outlined by a lush green shoreline.

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Two bald eagles:

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After sailing for about 45 minutes we got to the Point Retreat Lighthouse, off the coast of Admiralty Island. It was about this time that the captain slowed the boat down – this was a popular whale viewing area.

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Almost immediately we began to see spouts and sprays of water. The captain let us know there were indeed killer whales nearby and to keep our eyes peeled. He and his staff began deftly and helpfully alerting us to where they were.

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It wasn’t long before the orca pods were all around us. Mothers with babies, family units, adults. All kinds of group sizes. It was thrilling. John and I were awestruck.

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Fun fact: Orcas are extremely social and live in matriarchal societies (orca children never leave their mothers). Because female orca can reach 90 years old, it’s possible that as many as four generations can travel together. The intricate social bonds between orca are fascinating: each pod has a unique dialect, distinct food preferences, and cultural complexities.

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As the frequency increased, everyone grew more excited. Even the crew remarked at how unique these sighting were; they hadn’t ever seen such abundant orca groupings before, nd they run the tour! The captain was obviously overjoyed, you can hear him whooping and laughing in almost all of my videos (I recommend ‘full screen’ mode on these):

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We observed these orca, engines off, for probably an hour. They were exquisite and so close, it felt like you could reach out and touch them.

It’s worth mentioning that there are strict federal and environmental regulations around whale watching (how long you can be near the animals, how fast you can go, how much noise you can make, what position the boat should be in in relation to the whales, etc), and our tour observed them vigilantly.

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I also have to acknowledge the staff on our whale watch because they were incredibly knowledgeable about these animals. It made such a difference to have them posted around the boat, encouraging questions from us, and expertly answering them. This wasn’t just an fun excursion, it was educational as well and so much more meaningful as a result.

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After that spectacular show, the captain took us back down the channel in search of other wildlife (oh yeah, there are more than just orca here!). John got a snack and I continued to snap pictures of our surroundings with my amazing telephoto lens.

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As we went back through the channel we got a completely new view of Mendenhall Glacier.

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Also on the cliffs of the channel we saw a deer. Not the wildlife we were expecting but really cool nonetheless.

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On the last leg of the whale watch we slowed through Favorite Channel because there was some buzz that a humpback whale was nearby. To our amazement, there totally was!

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Not just a humpback whale – but a mother and baby humpback whale! This was so special to see. The humpback whale is less social than the orca and these two will only stay together for up to a year.

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The calf was extremely playful, rolling around and waving its fins.

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Fun fact: Humpback whales are migratory – spending their summers in Alaska, swimming roughly 3,000 miles from Hawaii where they spent their winters. Alaska is rich in krill, plankton, etc. in the summer and they can eat up to one ton per day. Humpbacks feast all summer to fatten up for the winter, as they don’t eat much during that time, if at all. When they migrate to Hawaii for the winter they spend that time mating and giving birth. Then swim 3,000 miles back to Alaska for the summer.

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While the calf entertained us with its frolicking, the mother was busy deep diving for food. The deep dive is usually when you see the beautiful tail fin of the humpback whale. If it weren’t for the incredible staff on the boat pointing out the telltale pre-deep dive signs, I probably would not have captured these pictures.

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We stayed with the humpback whales for about 30 minutes and then had to head back to shore. The final bit of wildlife we saw on the whale watch were these sea lions on this buoy, picturesquely in front of the Mendenhall Glacier.

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These Steller sea lions are extremely territorial so it was really funny to watch them defend their spots on the buoy, aggressively barking at each other and even pushing each other off the buoy.

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As we proceeded to the shore John and I went down into the enclosed area of the boat to hear a recap of the trip from the staff on board. They treated us to some fine Alaskan salmon and told us even more about all of the wildlife we had seen that day.

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Sentinel Island Lighthouse and another bald eagle:

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Just before we returned to shore I went up to the back of the boat to enjoy the scenery of Auke Bay one last time. This place felt so magical to me. Not only because of the natural beauty and the stunning weather, but because of the amazing wildlife we were privileged to see that day.

It dawned on me that I’ve probably only ever seen these types of animals in captivity, if at all, but definitely not in the wild. Their transient behaviors made me think about how much of this world they need in order to live, breed, and be free. As humans we often think that nature belongs to us, for our consumption or entertainment. But it’s not. These animals do not belong to us – in aquariums, in zoos, at Seaworld. We need to respect what is wild and only enjoy it morally and humbly.

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Observing nature, untouched and pristine, is our obligation. This idea quickly became the theme of our trip to Alaska and has stayed with me since.

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Stay tuned for Cruise Day 4 in Skagway, Alaska!

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Alaska Cruise | Seattle Visit and Cruise Days 1 & 2

Hold on to your hats, our latest vacation recap begins today! I am going to post by either port or cruise day with some extras as well (9 in all). Enjoy!

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. As you know, we are road trippers at heart but this year we decided to do something completely different – cruising! Incidentally, you can’t exactly get to Alaska by any other means than by boat so it was perfect. We also wanted to try a vacation that was relaxing; road tripping is thrilling and adventurous, but not exactly restful what with the strict schedule and daily demands of getting from point A to point B. Cruising was a very welcome change – everything is organized and pre-planned, all activities are optional, casual, and stress-free. There’s so much more to say about the nature and vibe of the cruise, but we’ll get to that soon enough!

On this Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

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One quick thing before I start the recap. One of my favorite things about vacation is photographing and documenting all of the amazing things we encounter on our travels. I knew that since we’d primarily be observing our surroundings from a boat, I would need a more powerful lens for my camera with zooming/telephoto capabilities. A coworker, and excellent photog, recommended checking out Borrow Lenses, a photography equipment rental company headquartered in San Francisco and here in Boston. Borrow Lenses has a huge inventory of rentals, most notably lenses. I did months of research and ended up selecting the Canon EF 70-300mm L series lens. Overall I was very happy with the lens and my resulting pictures. I hope you notice the long range shots and enjoy them!

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Let’s get this trip recap started! We were up at 4 AM on Saturday to get to the airport for our flight to Seattle.

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After a 2 hour delay and much boredom, we were in the air with free movies and free wifi. I watched The Hobbit 3 and caught up on my much-neglected Feedly backlog.

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When we arrived in Seattle we were picked up by our dear friends Matt and Danielle, and went right to Salty’s on Alki Beach for lunch. Afterwards we took a drive downtown and made a stop at Fran’s Chocolates to stock up on our favorite chocolate ever.

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Also, in what must have been foreshadowing, we saw an eagle flying up over the Puget Sound. Apparently this is semi-rare for Seattle and I’m glad I was able to capture these crappy pictures with my new lens (more awesome, clear, up close and personal pictures of eagles to come in later entries).

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I love Seattle, and the entire Pacific Northwest, and could totally see us living there if it wasn’t so dang far from the East Coast. It’s a beautiful place that I’m completely in love with.

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We chatted the afternoon and night away with Matt & Danielle and crashed that night deliriously tired. Spending time with them was awesome; they are such quality folks and I loved our time together, even though it was too short.

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On Sunday we all got breakfast together and they were kind enough to drop us at the cruise terminal. One of the things I had read online was that you should board the cruise ship as soon as you can because technically it’s Day 1 of your cruise and you’ve paid for it! So we did just that. After several lines of baggage check in, security, and registration we were finally on the cruise ship. We quickly checked out our room, got a snack, and went out to the deck to take in the views as we set sail from Seattle.

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After about an hour of being on our way, John hit the gym and I spent some alone time on our balcony…

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The balcony was truly my Happy Place throughout the entire cruise. The views were unreal and the atmosphere was so serene.

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A gorgeous view of Mount Rainier and a wee Seattle skyline:

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I actively let everything from real life just fall away as we cruised out into the Pacific Ocean. I knew then that this vacation would be different – relaxing, restorative, without distraction, and with gratitude.

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Day 1 ended with the excitement of a new adventure and all of the possibilities of vacation ahead of us.

Day 2 is easy to recap and is included here at the end for brevity. It was our first and only full day at sea. We spent it as we wished – laying around, napping, watching movies, eating, playing card games, exploring the ship, and doing nothing but totally relaxing. It was perfect and I took zero pictures.

Stay tuned for Cruise Day 3 in Juneau, Alaska!

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How To Live A Meaningful Life: Where To Begin

Life transitions are funny, you know they are coming but you have no idea what to expect. I definitely went through emo teen years, a quarter life crisis, a 30 before 30 phase. But now, in my early 30’s, with my solid career, loving marriage, home ownership, healthy diet/exercise routine, and all of the other stable things that make me boring and bored, I find myself wanting something more meaningful from life.

As I am prone to do, the second I realized this I started doing mental gymnastics over what could fill the void. A new pet, a vacation home, a kid, a second job, writing a book, going back to school, etc. All valid things. None of which I really want. But thinking them all up felt so productive! So indomitable! So important!

We, the collective we, are so busy planning The Next Thing that we barely sit long enough with Right Now. Something felt so wrong to me about not knowing what to do next. I couldn’t sit with Nothing as the answer. Not even for like 10 seconds.

Why can’t we just feel uncomfortable?! Why is it so hard? Why can’t I embrace this feeling instead of automatically trying to fix it?

I’ve decided that, for me, for now, there are no decisions to make. Life is good. I am happy. I’d like to fill my life with more meaning but for now I’m going to be ok with the fact that what’s next is unknown to me. Maybe I’ll start a new endeavor, pick up a new hobby, find my passion, or a new calling. I hope I do. But that’s where I’m choosing to begin. With the unknown, the unplanned, the uncommitted, without guilt or dread, without solutions or deadlines. I’m no longer sacrificing the present for the future. I’m beginning with nothing and that sounds great.

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