The Lure of the North, Chapter One.

What is it about the north that is so attractive to Canadians? What makes them oft-times turn their backs on sun, surf and sand and court storm, snow and yes, silence? It can no longer be the promise of easy riches. Since the massive gold rush of the 1886 the mining has largely gone professional. So maybe it’s a product of our pioneering genes. (It was only a couple of centuries ago that to “go west” meant by a bullock-drawn wagon.) Anyway I have always had this illogical longing to be part of the north, even for a brief time.

Last Christmas when I was visiting my western family, I happened to mention to my two daughters that I always pictured the northern trip up to Alaska as one of my unfulfilled wishes. “I sort of visualized it as my last hurrah. But I don’t know anyone well enough to share a cabin with.”

My two girls almost simultaneously answered, “What about us?” And so commenced a significant adventure which would provide many memories for years to come. The unwritten agreement was that they would plan and arrange all the details. And they would look after me during the trip. It would be sort of a family ménage à trois. All I had to do was pay the bills!

On August 24th, we boarded the MS Regatta. It was a truly beautiful modern ship nevertheless with some old world charm in the decor and furnishings. This would be home to approximately 600 passengers and 400 crew for the next twelve days.

The cabin was surprisingly capacious with a queen size bed and a single pull out bed from the sofa. It, of course, had a bathroom (no bath but a small shower.) It also had as a special luxury, a balcony! We did not however spend much time in our rooms (except for sleeping) as there was much to do aboard ship and on the shore excursions along the way. On board, we enjoyed superb meals in four dining areas: an open cafeteria style, U shaped area which we inhabited for breakfast and lunch, a large ballroom dining room, and two elite, gourmet restaurants where truly exceptional cuisine was offered. (We were allowed to attend each of the later two twice. The rest of the time we dined in the main dining room.) A large selection of wines were listed, from $250 down. We tended to the lower range of this scale. If we did not finish a bottle they marked it with our room number and somehow, regardless of our location, were able to return the bottle for the next dinner.

Not surprisingly food was a major source of interest for the guests. Another activity was gambling, but we were not tempted. Lectures on current subjects were given in a large theatre. Also there were stage performances every evening. But I was always too eager for bed at 9:30. The one time the girls attended they returned to our state room unimpressed.

We enjoyed several of the lectures. Paula spoke about the ports that we were to visit, John, an marine biologist, spoke several times about sea life: whales, sea otters, sea birds, etc. Did you know that sea mammals (whales, otters, etc.) have evolved kidneys that get rid of the salt? Birds may have a “processor” in their beaks!

But the most fascinating lecture was by the Captain on the subject of piracy. He told us that the crime was hardly recent, reaching probably as far back far back as there was commerce on the seas. Roman and Greek history tells of it. Julius Caesar was captured once. The pirates were going to demand 20 gold talents for his release. He persuaded them he was worth 50! He was released on payment and then set out to capture his captors. He had them crucified. A rather drastic lesson for them.

Modern day piracy is more sophisticated and is obvious of some concern to those travelling by sea. However the number of cases per year is a very tiny fraction of 1%—which may not be of much consolation if you happen to be on a ship that is captured. Apparently the ransoms demanded are usually paid and are in the millions of dollars all in small bills. (When delivering the ransom, the victims’ representatives even include bill counting machines to speed the process.) Negotiations with the criminals usually take several months during which the hostages are held captive. On ransom delivery they are invariable freed. The pirates use some of their loot to upgrade their attack boats and their weaponry. Much like the drug trade where the victims ensure the survival of their perpetrators.

There is now a safety protocol if a ship is attacked. The victim ship should never retaliate in kind.. Helicopters will respond to an SOS within twenty minutes. Their role is to drive the pirates way, if they are still at sea. If the ship has already been boarded, the helicopters will not attack.

The Captain reminisced about an occasion in the Gulf of Aden. The cruise ship he was captaining was in the sights of two pirates launches. “I was not particularly concerned as my ship could outrun their launches. And as well, they carry ladders with hooks at the top to hang on to the ship’s rail. But our nearest open deck is five floors above so their ladders are not long enough. We outran one of the attackers but the other got close enough to fire at us. The news media made a great ado about bullet holes in our ship—but we never found any.” A fascinating talk designed not to arouse our concern.

Our first port of call was Ketchikan. The residents are proud to call it the “rain capital of the world.” At dockside was a large thermometer sign proclaiming that the record rainfall in a year was 17 feet!

Photos by Toni Henderson

Victoria and Lyman—Hendersons dressed for rain

We disembarked in rain. We had however, fortified ourselves with rain gear—pants, jackets and hoods—so we braved the elements cheerily. Ketchikan is a pioneer town. Painted square box buildings, mostly of wood, were crammed along the narrow strip of land facing the sea. No buildings were beyond three stories in height. Behind was a large hill with a dense scraggy forest. Some streets climbed the hill with pedestrian steps to more buildings pasted to the rock face above. My two girls climbed, perhaps to see the view (obscured by fog) or just for exercise. I took my afternoon rest.

Not surprisingly one of the chief sources of income for these ports is the captive tourists that the cruise ships delivers. Thus shops are filled with tourist attractions. We saw little that we personally would value though there was some interesting jewelry settings of local precious and semi-precious stones. The indigenous arts and crafts were, I fear, too naive for our tastes.

Our sea plane excursion to see Misty Straight was cancelled due to excessively misty weather. No visibility translates into nothing to see!

Cruise ships tend to sail all night and dock during the day to allow for on-land excursions. Our next point of call was Hoonay, on Icy Straight Point. (There wasn’t much ice. It should have been called Rainy Straight Point.) On this particular wet and foggy morning we set out in a two-decker motor launch for whale watching. The Skipper explained that there was no guarantee that we would find whales but he felt the chances were good. Good? Within fifteen minutes from port we came upon two pair of Orcas or Killer Whales. They were nick-named the latter because they are carnivorous, hunting for porpoises, sharks, otters, sea lions and even other whales. Some sub-species eat other fish, including sharks. Orcas frequently hunt in packs and have very sophisticated hunting techniques. As well as having good above and below water sight, they use echo locations to search for prey.

Orcas are easily recognized by the black and white “clown make up” and large dorsal fins which stand straight out of the water up to two meters high. (As their spectacular jumps and plunges use a lot of energy and generate a lot of body heat, this dorsal fin is a radiator to dissipate that excess heat.)

But back to our day trip, these Orcas were out to amaze the visiting humans and they breached, and slapped their tales and dived. The latter activity is preceded by raising their tails high out of the water before they disappear beneath the surface. Quite a remarkable sight for land lubbers!

Further on we spotted a few hump-back whales, easily recognized for—guess what—their humped backs! This pair was less inclined to put on a show for us. (Who can blame them. They each weigh up to 40 tons!) For the spectator the most interesting thing is their “blows.” A stream of water mist expelled from their nostril on the top of their head. We were told that the exit speed of the exhale was about 300 miles per hour. Of course, this highly visible stream was the undoing of the species during the early whaling days, as it could be seen for many miles away.

Hump-backs eat unbelievable quantities of very small ocean fish life. Drawing swimming-pool sized gulps of water into their mouths which they expel through a sieve of baleen “teeth.” These are rather like enormous vertical Venetian blinds which capture the solids and allow the fluids to escape. The final step is to use their two-ton tongue to wipe off the hapless fish-life caught up in the process from the baleen screen.

We also happened on a solitary otter floating on his back and enjoying (I presume he was his enjoying it) his leisure. We rated this day a very good excursion.

We cruised all night and the next morning approached the great Hubbard Glacier by water to within a couple of miles. This glacier is noted for the ice bergs it “calves.” Not so today. There was some floating ice, not really big enough to be called ice flows but no bergs. It was however a spectacular sight to come to within two miles of the 400 foot high ice face.

Glaciers are formed usually in an area where snow is permanent and melts little in summer time. This snow which, over the years, is compressed into a unique kind of ice by the weight of the accumulated snow layers above, becomes the glacier. It is not stationary. It “flows.” Sometimes so little that it is measured in centimeters per week and at other times in meters per day. The source of the Hubbard is in Yukon, Canada. It is estimated that it takes 400 years for a spot in the ice to move from the source to mouth.

But we were to get a hands-on (or rather a foot-on) approach to this natural phenomenon. After docking the next day in Juneau , we took a bus to the helicopter air port. Yes, a helicopter would take us to the surface of the Mendenhall glacier!

Photos by Toni Henderson

Ice Wall atop the Mendenhall Glacier

We all went into the terminal where we watched a safety movie (can’t remember a thing about it) and then listened to instructions. “Watch your step! It’s slippery on the ice and as it is raining the ice is wet. If in doubt, don’t.” Then we put on a deflated flotation vest on our chests and overshoes on our feet, with great cleated soles to provide grip. We walked to the aircraft (with its engine idling and rotors spinning.) Though the craft appeared to be quite small it was short but stubby. It could comfortably seat 3 in the front seat (including pilot) and 4 in the second row. There was excellent vision from all seats. After we had adjusted our seat belts and head sets, the craft took off into the misty heavens. (It is quite an experience to rise vertically rather than a long run-off on runway Pearson #122.) We continued to rise then flew forward over the top of the glacier. We were curious about the nature of some moving., black dots on the flat ice before us, but as we approached we were discovered they were people! We were in a flight of three helis and we shortly landed on the ice. Our passengers were herded away from our craft by an on-site guard, Kelly, and corralled in a tight group, where she informed us about some of the features of this glacier. Meanwhile the helis picked up the people who had come earlier and then sped away into the gathering fog. We were deserted on an ice desert. What would happen if the fog closed in so much that flying was suspended?

Kelly showed us some of the crevices and we listened to the water rushing far below. We were urged not to fall into a sink hole as it might become a permanent residence. We were encouraged to lie down on the wet ice and drink some of the virgin water. Victoria was brave; Toni was photographer; I was chicken.

Walking on the crushed ice, even with special purpose boots, was treacherous. Victoria and Toni each took one of my arms, so that I could hold them up should they slip.

In 20 minutes or so, it was all over. The three helis came into sight with another load of tourists, loaded us up and returned us to base. It was short, awe inspiring and truly memorable.

13 Responses to “The Lure of the North, Chapter One.”

  1. Jack Long says:

    Very interesting. Carol and I took an Alaska cruise about four years ago but it didn’t seem to offer some of the extras that you describe. Your cruise sounds like a lot more fun.

  2. Chloe says:

    thanks Lyman, what a spectacular trip. The Glaciers are melting much more rapidly now making it more treacherous to walk on them. We, too, enjoyed our visit up the inland passage to Alaska. You brought us wonderful memories.

    Peter and Chloe

  3. charles Kirby says:

    I have been waiting for the ‘Travelogue’. It finally came…Good storys. Looking forward to the continuation…

  4. Enjoyed your family experience – it’s good to be visiting places that might eventually disappear ! I trekked to Everest base camp several years ago and am planning on Mount kilimanjero next year – care to join me ? Murray

  5. Marianne Gorecki says:

    “””””Victoria and Toni each took one of my arms, so that I could hold them up should they slip.””””””

    I love the above sentence taken from your text. Beautiful pictures
    HUGS !!!!!!!!

  6. gay. Thius requires a sequel !!!! says:

    Enjoyed your voyage Lyman. It’s a trip we have contemplated but think we’re too old (We are 5 years younger than you!!)
    Don’t know who would hold us up. We visited some of these destinations on an Alaska cruise some years ago. Spectacular country. Gay and Mary Lou

  7. Ah, Lyman, what a glorious adventure the three of you had. Can’t wait for Chapter 2. And I’m glad you stayed away from sink holes and slippery slopes!

    GB Joy

  8. Bengt Jörgen says:

    What a great trip! Loved the commentary, felt like I was there with you, though I am glad I missed the rain…


  9. Fran Deacon says:

    Lyman, Dear Lyman:
    My adventure was created in reading of your adventure. Although the 3 of you have always been close…this trip will
    ‘tighten’ the hold…in fact and in memory. What a fantastic trip!! Thanks for sharing it…now I will share it with
    some of my Grandchildren.

  10. Rose says:

    That was great Lyman, you cracked me up. The smiles you passed on are priceless and FUNNY. Your family trip sounds wonderful. I will have to write Toni. Thank you for the humour and the adventure. I don’t think this is your “last hurrah” as you put it. I’ll bet Toni & Victoria would love to have you hold them up on another adventure. Have a wonderful week ahead and thank you for sharing your expressive family trip.

    xo Rose

  11. Silvana Ness says:

    How delightful, Lyman! Family and other friends of ours took this same trip but their report was nowhere near as fun as yours!!
    I laughed out loud at some of your remarks. The three of you sound like you had quite a ball!
    As Rose, above, said: Thank you for sharing!


  12. John Crossley says:

    I’ve never been but now feel I have, Thanks for your apt description of everything as usual==really enjoyed it. Look forward to the next episode. John.

  13. Susan Bodie says:

    Hi Lyman,

    Thank you for your Christmas card. Am so glad that you put your website with Bedtime Stories for Grownups on the card, because then I could enjoy reading about this trip. My mother, Frances was over for dinner, and we read Part 1 together. Your writing conjured up good memories of the west coast for her.
    Thank you! With affection, Susan

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