The Lure of the North, Chapter Two

Onwards but now south again on our cruise from Alaska. The next port of call was to be Sitka and we had another shore event booked and paid for. As we were travelling along at sea, the captain came on the public address system: “I’m sorry to tell you that I have just had a weather report from Sitka. There are strong winds and 12 foot waves. The ship could take that but I feel the passengers would not enjoy it. So we have cancelled Sitka and instead will drop into Wrangel.” We arrived as the only cruise ship at Wrangel. This town wasn’t used to cruise visits. It didn’t look as if it had that much of interest to offer. We had no shore excursions booked. So we spent the day on board. We took advantage of the spa services—massage, pedicures, etc—an expensive decision!
More travel by night arriving at Prince Rupert in the early morning. We were back in Canada, if only for a brief visit.
Prince Rupert came to fame as the terminus for the Grand Trunk Railway, founded by Charles Hayes, the President of the GTR, in 1910. Over time it became a centre for fishing and lumber and a terminus for coal, lumber and grain shipments to the Pacific countries. It obviously was not the frontier town that we had been conditioned to expect. It had indeed grown into a respectable city, with such grand buildings as a Civic Centre, a swimming pool, a golf course and a Performing Arts Centre.
We were booked for another whale watching adventure, which included visits to two historical light houses, this time in a spanking new $4-million launch. It was specially built for the job and hence supremely comfortable, with great viewing areas and a startling turn of speed. I remember it as cruising at 24 knots. (What is that in kms. per hours? I’ve no idea but we covered the waters very quickly.)
The whales were a little shyer this time but we did manage to come upon a small pod of hump-backs and their risings and blowings were a thrill. These are enormous beasts. Much bigger than the boat we were on and that held 50 people easily. I think Moby Dick was a hump-back but the concept of him attacking a man-powered boat was a little far-fetched. Nevertheless all the whale had to do was to rise up underneath our boat and that would make life very uncomfortable for us. The skipper told us that one time a hump-back “fell in love” with his boat and was scraping its back against the keel. He could not restart the engines for fear of propeller damage to the animal. So that party was an hour or so late getting back to port.
The lighthouses were attractive and interesting. One of them is one of the few “manned” light beacons left on the west coast. It had a brightly painted house (white with red trim) attached with a little garden area—and even a bee hive! The remaining light houses are robotic. A sign of the times.
Then back on the Regatta, it was more night cruising. But if the passengers were interested in Prince Rupert, we knocked their eyes out with Victoria. This must be one of North America’s most beautiful cities. we arrived in bright sunlight and the harbour was ablaze with colourful flower and shrubs. Everywhere was another carefully tended garden. On shore we took a bus to the city centre and the famed Empress Hotel—famed for its long history, famed for its gentle fortress (there’s an oxymoron for you) style of architecture, famed as a world’s rendezvous. It was also a memory for me for I danced the evening away here once when I was a 20 year old second lieutenant. Now we were in the heart of flowerland. There was even a sculpted hedge taking on the shape of two cavorting Orcas. We walked up Wharf Street and found a charming bistro where they served all kinds of fish. It was a delight.
We had time to spend a couple of hours at the Victoria Museum. The dioramas of west coast life, both prehistoric and present, were so well done, you felt you were part of it. Then we caught the afternoon bus back to the ship. We were by now a long way from Alaska and we had one final port to visit on our way to San Francisco. It was Astoria in Oregon.
The port itself did not particularly interest us but we had booked a bus tour to take us to Mt. St. Helen—the notorious volcano that blew apart in May of 1980. We had debated a long time as to whether something that happened 30 years ago was worth a two and a half hour bus trip and the same to return. We had already booked and we were a little to slow to cancel so shortly after docking (and going through US customs—we had been in Canada remember?) we picked up our box lunches and hit the long trail to our destination. It was attractive countryside and they showed us a moving movie of the Mt. St. Helen eruption. It was interesting even if only to recall what we had watched 30 years ago. The early part of the trip was on city roads and highways. It was when we got into the park, that had been established around the site as a memorial, that the drive became an experience.
That road insinuated its way into a virginal, mountain countryside. It clung to cliff sides, it slid cautiously around blind corners, it laboured up great hills and plunged into deep valleys. There was, however, a long, high, modern bridge across a deep gorge. American engineering won the day. We suddenly arrived on site to be over whelmed by the sight.
Mt. St. Helen was the expected snow-capped, conical, volcanic mountain which had been built up to mountain height by numerous eruptions over millennia. But with one radical difference. The whole NE face had been literally blown into oblivion. Picture a perfect cone where a giant earth-mover had removed half the mountain-side!
Now for a little history to refresh your memories. We start back in the spring of 1980. Seismologists had been keeping a careful watch on the mountain for some months. The volcano had been sleeping for many years but alarm bells were ringing in the shape of earth tremours as well as a distorting bulge on the NE flank. Scientists expected the mountain to blow its top (in the traditional volcanic blow) so they had evacuated residents and tourists to a safe area beyond the expected range of the eruption. A seismologist had been left “on duty” on a safe ridge about three miles away. (On that same ridge a fortress-like building had been erected—a tourist information site manned by scientists and volunteers. We were viewing the mountain from there.)
On that fateful day, May 18, 1980, at 8:32 in the morning, the mountain blew out its whole side. The on-duty seismologist had only time to say over the phone, “VANCOUVER, VANCOUVER. THIS IS IT!” when the shock wave hit his site. It has been estimated that he had only forty seconds of life left after the mountain blew.
And what a mighty explosion that was! Immense clouds of smoke and ash rose miles and miles into the air. (These were not the mushroom-shaped clouds of an atomic explosion but just a continuing billowing from an enormous blast furnace. The resulting vast clouds actually blew around the whole world more than once.) What happened to the very extensive fan-shaped area in the “line of fire?” Utter destruction. Giant swatches of forest were laid completely flat, the trees lying like discarded match sticks yet all lying in the same direction. In the midst of this desolation, odd little green areas that had been in the “shade” of a protecting mountain, were left unscathed. Great floods of water overflowed down-stream areas only to be replaced by rivers of molten lava. Wild life was incinerated in its tracks—flora and fauna. And after a few hours an eerie silence. The silence of the dead.
Scientists expected the moonscape to last for generations. Early on they decided to set apart the area immediately around the blast-site as a “sacred” park. It would be left untouched to see if and when nature would start the rejuvenation process. Meanwhile the clean-up beyond this reserved area would begin. Weyerhaeuser, who had forestry rights on all the land, started to salvage the logs. This took 2 years with up to 200 trucks per day carrying out the logs to the mills. They also commenced a giant reforestation programme. The result of that latter work today is great stands of trees now some 30 years old.
Meanwhile, surprisingly early (weeks not even months) signs of life were beginning to appear. The pocket gopher (a small burrowing animal) if it were below the surface at blast time, survived. It continued to live off the roots of plants that had been killed. Its excretions started to fertilize the arid soil. Lupines were one of the first plants to appear because their system captures nitrogen in the roots. Then strange green patches of moss were noticed. It took some time to recognize that these patches were in the silhouette of elk! The dead animals’ carcasses were fertilizing the soil!
Today the reserved area still looks very barren but it is supporting small herds of elk. In another generation it may well be indistinguishable. “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
We concluded our stay by going to a film of the event. A lone observer, with a film camera (not even with automatic advance features) took pictures as fast as his thumb could advance the film. Digitally this has been processed into a unbelievable movie sequence. On the “big screen” it was overpowering.
The next day was a day at sea as we had a lot of ocean to cover to reach San Francisco the morning of Friday, August 26th.
Arrival at 7 AM was uneventful. It took about 3 hours to unload all the passengers. The ship offered assisted transportation to the airport for $87 per passenger ($261 for three!) Along with many others we stood in line for a taxi. Maybe it was a 20 minute wait. The taxi for the three of us with luggage cost $50 including tip!
From the airport I planned to fly directly to Toronto. The girls would go directly to Vancouver. We arrived with plenty of time to spare. (More time than the girls wanted as their plane was delayed three hours.) I had an interesting experience going through security.
The Canadian security services were using a new type of scanner. We did the usual divesting ourselves of all metal in pockets, etc. Also our carry-on luggage and our jackets went through an X-ray machine. Then this new scanner. One by one we were required to step into a circular glass room, about the size of a revolving door space. Once inside, the entry glass door slid shut. We were asked to stand with our feet on two painted outlines on the floor. We were to raise our arms akimbo. (We looked rather like the goal posts on a rugby field.) The girls created no problem but not so with the old man. I rang the alarms. They asked me to step out. “Please remove your belt. And your shoes. Your watch.” I explained about my artificial hip. “We’ll try again.” I still didn’t pass.
The attendant signaled to a young security office. Politely he took me into a small private office with windowless walls. A burly security guard also accompanied us. The latter neither smiled nor spoke. Ominous! The door was closed and locked. I should have been alarmed but wasn’t. I knew I was clean. Security suspected otherwise. However I must say that the examining officer was courteous to the extreme.
“Now I am going to run my hands down both your legs, inside and out. Then I will run my hands down your back and then your front. OK?”
“Be my guest,” I answered cheerily. I thought the whole procedure was quite amusing. He proceeded.
“Now,” he said, “I notice that you have a prosthesis attached to your left leg.” I nodded. “I want you to undo your pants and rub your hand over the prosthesis. I laughed and proceeded as instructed.
“Now hold out your hand.” He rubbed a circular piece of paper over my hand and examined it closely. Apparently that did not ring any bells. He was looking more and more puzzled.
“Are you going to check my crotch?”
“I’m not going to go there, Sir,” he replied with a suppressed chuckle.
“So now what?”
“Well, you seem to be all clear. You can leave now.” So I walked out a free man, and as I left he had one last comment; “Thanks for the entertainment, Sir.”
So a fabulous cruise ended with a tiny adventure—and then the long flight home.
Thinking back, it is now only slightly easier to recapture the gold rush days from what we visited and saw. That which was reminiscent might well have been preserved there, or even created, for the tourist. It was interesting to see how that state, with its long narrow tail down the coast, is very distinctly American. The US bought the land from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2-million—about 2 cents per acre. (It became the 49th state in 1959.) Canada didn’t even enter the bidding. It wanted no part of it. Canadians were too busy setting up their own country without the hassle of taking in a new frontier land.
For me? I guess my taste for the North has been satisfied—until the next time.

8 Responses to “The Lure of the North, Chapter Two”

  1. A very interesting and supremely satisfying read, Lyman. I especially enjoyed the rebirth of land around the volcano after the devastation. Who could have imagined that grass or moss would grow up in the shape of dead elk?

    Definitely an adventure to remember – as I shall do vicariously.


  2. charles kirby says:

    Great ‘read’. as always…When thinking about Mt. St Helens, it does make a person realize that: At Times A Greater Power Is At Work…

  3. jack long says:

    Sounds like a great trip.
    When Carol and I did a similar trip we walked around the town in Astoria Oregon, which you also visited, and found a second hand and antique store which had a very large selection of old sheet music from the twenties and thirties. We found some gems. We didn’t have time to go to the old volcano though and it seems that we missed something senssational.

  4. Fran Deacon says:

    Fascinating Lyman. Fraser and I visited Mount St. Helen in the 1970’s
    and the later devastation we read about but your detailed picture of it brings
    memories of the site flooding back.
    The wonders of Nature!! Thank You.

  5. Rose says:

    Great Lyman, I’m so glad you had a part 2. It sounds like a wonderful trip. The fact that you could go with your girls
    made it double special.

    Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.


  6. John Crossley says:

    Never having been, I enjoyed the travelog.Thanks, John.

  7. Eva Lederer says:

    Since I am not likely to travel to the far North at this point in my life, it
    was most enjoyable to go with you and see
    it all through your eyes; much more real
    than some ‘travellogue’like description.
    Thank you, Lyman

  8. Silvana Ness says:

    Such an interesting description of all events, as usual, Lyman.

    Thank you.

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