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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Basic Biittner: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, part 2

Friday, August 13, 2010

Just ten days after returning from my first trip of the summer, my wife and I headed on trip #2 with ten dear friends. Unlike my previous trip, which came together very quickly, this trip had been in the works for approximately seven years. Several members of our "supper club-" a group of former high school classmates and their spouses which has been getting together for 30+ years - traveled to New York City together in 2001 and had such a good time, we started putting away money towards our next "big adventure" several years ago. A couple of years ago, it was decided that the adventure would be a cruise to Alaska. Time and money ruled out a longer, two-week trip to the interior of Alaska, so we opted for a cruise up and back on the "inner passage," a narrow waterway on the lower tip of our 49th state. Ten of us - Jim and Connie Mohn, John and Marcia Smith, Bruce and Deena Jones, Doug and Barb Radke, and my wife Janet and I - flew out of Omaha early on the morning of July 2 and landed in Vancouver, British Columbia that evening, after a brief layover in Denver. Larry and Shanda Reilly had gone out a day or two earlier, and met up with the rest of us in Vancouver.

Totems in Stanley Park - Totem poles tell stories and are a big part of Alaska. These particular poles, however, are in Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
I was extremely impressed with Vancouver - it is a very clean city. They have a goal of being the "greenest" city in the world, and they actually have crews which wash the sidewalks every weekday. The city also requires landscaping at every business, and awards prizes to the best and most creative job of landscaping. Much of this was done in preparation for the recent Winter Olympics that the city hosted, but it has continued since then, and will continue forward. It is a very impressive place, with gorgeous scenery, and I sure wouldn't mind living there - if I could afford it.

Our 'home away from home' - The Zuiderdam, our 'home away from home' for a week this July.
Our cruise ship (the Zuiderdam of the Holland America Line) provided a bus tour for us on the way to our ship the following morning, and later that morning we were off on our seven-day adventure. For several of us in our group, it was our first experience on a cruise.

Our ship had approximately 1800 passengers (about twice the population of Aurelia), with approximately 800 crew members. We were among the youngest passengers, but certainly not the youngest, as there were a few teenagers and other youngsters. The service staff (stewards, wait staff, etc.) are all natives of the Phillipines, and they were all very gracious, friendly, and helpful throughout the week.

A formal evening - Although clothing was usually "dress casual" on the cruise, we did have two formal dinner evenings. I think we "clean up pretty good," don't you? left to right: Larry and Shanda Reilly, Dan and Janet Whitney, Deena and Bruce Jones. second tier, Doug Radke (in tux), Jim and Connie Mohn, Barb Radke (behind Connie), and John and Marcia Smith (at top).
Our first port of call was Juneau. Juneau, as most of you probably know, is the capital of Alaska. However, it is not a large city and, in fact, can only be reached by sea or air. The state made plans years ago to relocate the capital to a larger - and more centrally located - city like Fairbanks or Anchorage, but for some reason, it was never accomplished. We went ashore in Juneau to see the town, and several of us took a ride on a boat to go whale watching. We saw some humpback whales very shortly after we left the harbor, and again a couple of times after that, and we also saw a few sea lions and four bald eagles who were perched on a small island named Aaron Island (our son's name). The eagles seemed totally oblivious to our presence.

Our next port was Skagway, which is an even smaller city than Juneau, and has retained the look of 110+ years ago. Our excursion that day was a train ride up the mountain to see the sights from a higher elevation. Unfortunately, it was a little foggy that day, so the sights weren't always clearly visible. We also took a bus to "Liarsville," a small town where we were treated to a musical show and attempted to pan for gold. None of us came away any richer (monetarily, anyway). Liarsville got its name, by the way, because the newspapermen of the town spread the word to gold prospectors about the great gold strikes which had been made higher up the mountain and, though Alaska did indeed produce gold, the claims of the newspaper reporters were greatly exaggerated - hence the name "Liarsville."

Another sight to see in Alaska are the Native American totem poles, and in our last stop, Ketchikan, we traveled to Potlatch Park to see a few. We hoped to watch a pole being carved, but, unfortunately, the woman who does that intricate work had already gone home for the day, so ...

I don't mean to make this sound like it was a bummer of a trip because it certainly WASN'T. We had a great time, and though the weather was a little wet and foggy for a couple of days, on the day we were in Ketchikan, where we had been told "it always rains," it was sunny and beautiful, which seemed to greatly surprise our tour guides on the ship.

Bald is Beautiful - These bald eagles on Aaron Island tried to ignore us snoopy humans.
One of the nice things about going with a large group of friends on a big ship, we found, is this: one can choose to spend as much (or as little) time with some or all of the group as one chooses. There were plenty of activities to choose from. For example, there was a casino on board, and the gambling members of our group were able to spend time there; there was also a screening room, and I went there to watch a couple of films -"Invictus" and "Extraordinary Measures," complete with free popcorn; a couple of the woman in our group attended some special programs put on by the ship's culinary staff; I attended a couple of lectures by the ship's tour director, Ron, and learned more about the state of Alaska. For example, one in 58 Alaskans has a pilot's license, and every town has at least one small air strip. Not really surprising, because an estimated 70% of the state is unreachable by land. Also- and this would be a big reason to move to our 49th state - Alaska has no mosquitoes and other such flying pests. I also took the opportunity to participate in a couple of the daily trivia contests, including one covering early Americana, appropriately on the 4th of July.

We ate together as a group at two big tables in the Main Dining Hall each evening, and the food and fellowship were great. One evening, there was recorded music playing, and when the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" came on, many members of our group spontaneously broke into singing along, a la the scene in the movie "Top Gun." I didn't normally pay any attention to the other tables, but I couldn't help but notice a younger woman at a nearby table giving us one of those disapproving "Who are those people?" looks. I loved it.

We were sailing along on Glacier Bay ... We spent a day sailing on Glacier Bay, looking at beautiful sights such as this.
Following our dinner each evening, we'd head to the main theatre and enjoy the musical offerings of the talented Zuiderdam singers and dancers, and we also enjoyed a guest comedian and juggler.

To sum up, Alaska is a very beautiful place, from the heavily-forested hills and mountains to the numerous waterways and glaciers. We spent one day sailing in Glacier Bay, and all I can say is, "wow." I've included a photo, but, as they say, a photo doesn't do it justice.

The sunset over Ketchikan was beautiful. Photo by Janet Whitney
It was a very memorable week, and I would recommend the trip to anyone who enjoys the beauty of nature. I enjoy the beauty of nature myself, but basically I'm a "city guy," and I'm not sure I could live in a state which is so isolated and hard to access by land. In other words, as the old saying goes, "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

In Part three of my "Summer Vacation" series, I'll share a very enjoyable and memorable two hour experience which did not require any travel. Technically not a "Vacation," because I didn't "vacate."

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner