Saturday, July 31, 2010

Souteast Alaska

Our foray into Southeast didn’t start too well with the rain and fog coming over the Chilkoot Pass. Of course it was still a lot easier for us than the miners of the 1898 Gold Rush who had to hand carry a years worth of supplies over the top to reach the Yukon River and sail down the river, north to the gold fields in the Klondike area. The story is that of the one hundred thousand that started only 3,000 actually got to stake claims and of that 3,000 only 300 got rich.

Linda enjoys the ferry ride to Juneau
Saturday morning we were glad to see (yes it is light up here at four in the morning) that the rain had stopped and the fog had lifted. It looked like it would be a nice day for our ferry trip to Juneau. On the sail down the Lynne Canal, the National Forest naturalist aboard pointed out the Rainbow Glacier and said it was a rare treat to be able to see it. The Lynne Canal is not really a canal, but it is the largest and deepest fjord in North America. Things were looking up, but in typical Alaskan fashion began to deteriorate again as we approached Juneau. The massive Mendenhall Glacier was obscured by low clouds and the rain reduced the visibility. The Chamber of Commerce in Juneau puts out a brochure that has frequently asked questions in it. One of the questions is, “Does it rain everyday in Juneau?” Their answer, “No, some days it snows”.

After we arrived in Juneau we headed to the closest and only Wal-Mart to spend the night while we waited for another early morning ferry departure. We were surprised when they told us that they do not allow any overnight parking. So we headed over to their competition, Fred Meyers, where they do allow overnight parking. Fred Meyer’s will now be our favorite city “campsite” while in Alaska.

Boards have to be placed under the
wheels to keep the coach from
bottoming out.
Sitka is the only city in SE along the major ferry route that we had not been to before. People that had been there before raved about how nice it is, so we had to go see it for ourselves. It is the town with the most Russian heritage of any SE Alaska. We took the fast ferry, Fairweather, over. It took a while to load ours and the other motorhomes and trailers as the tide was down and the ramp was steep. Boards had to be placed under the tires to lift the back end. It was quite an operation, but very professionally done by the crew. Everyone got loaded with no damage to any of the vehicles or the boat. The ferry runs fully loaded at 36 knots and it is fantastic ride up through the Peril Straits and all the narrows that you have to weave through to reach Sitka. You actually do not reach Sitka, but Baranof Island which Sitka is on. The ferry dock is about eight miles out of town.

Our Campsite in Sitka
Our ferry reservations had us staying in Sitka for five days. We arrived and immediately drove to a campground just outside of town. It is located at one of the City marinas and we were worried about it being full. It is described as RV parking with electric, as opposed to a campground. So we were not surprised to find that it was just a big parking lot. We were surprised to find that it was paved. Most parking lots here are dirt, which in Alaska means mud. We were also surprised to find that it was almost empty. We nosed the coach in and faced the harbor on our right and Sitka sounds and this islands on the left. It was a beautiful place and less than a quarter mile from downtown.

Once we were situated and plugged in we took the Jeep in to see the town. Five minutes later after driving through all of town, we wondered what we were going to do for the next five days. It was a nice little place, but the emphasis is on little. This is definitely a fishing destination. There are five major boat harbors in and around town. And they are all full and full of fishing boats. This may be the only place that has more boats than people. It looked like we were either going to fish or learn how to relax.

Monday there are no cruise ships in town, so we figured it would be a good day to tour and explore. Then we found out most of the stuff is only open on the days the cruise ships are in. Monday we did hit a rarity as in the afternoon it cleared up and the sun came out. We took advantage of this phenomenon and drove south out of town into the National Forest. We finally got to do some off road driving in the Jeep on a FS dirt road. It was beautiful, the forest that is, not the road. That night we had dinner at the Channel Club, a wonderful, but pricey, restaurant on the water with a beautiful view. Life is good and it gave us a completely new appreciation of Sitka and the surrounding area.

Archangel Dancers
Tuesday, two cruise ships came in and it was crowded. But everything was open. We got to see the Archangel Dancers, which perform Russian dances in an effort to preserve the Russian heritage of Sitka. There are 34 ladies that volunteer their time and efforts in the program. We did learn that not one of the 34 is Russian. But they did a wonderful job and the costumes were magnificent. Sitka also has a number of museums and historic sites which honor the Tlingit natives, Russian fur traders and American influences in the area. Tuesday also gave us our second nice day in a row and we took advantage of it, by driving north into the national forest and taking a couple of walks on the beach and in the magnificent cedar forest.

Wednesday and Thursday it returned to normal weather cool and overcast, but at least no rain. The folks here are beginning to talk about a drought as it has not rained all week. We did get a chance to relax and see more of the historic spots.

Mendenhall Glacier looking in Auke Bay
On the return trip to Juneau, the clouds did lift and some sunshine did peak through. We were greeted this time by a magnificent view of the Mendenhall Glacier as we approached the docks. We only had one night in Juneau, but this time at least we have a reasonable departure time and did not have to be at the ferry dock until one in the afternoon. Friday it was dropped dead gorgeous by anyone’s standards. Not a cloud in the sky, no wind and temperatures in the 70’s. The ferry ride to Haines was wonderful and the views magnificent.

Humpback Whales bubble feeding
We were treated to a very special treat on our ride and that was humpback whales bubble feeding. This is when the whales circle a school of herring blowing our air which traps them. The whales then close the circle and take turns rushing to the surface feeding on the fish. We have read about it before, but this was the first time we saw it. It was spectacular as the whales launched themselves out of the water. Unfortunately, we were too far away to get any good pictures.

We didn’t arrive in Haines until after 8:00 PM. Most all of the campgrounds were full because the SE Alaska State Fair is going on here this weekend. In true Alaskan fashion we just pulled off the side of the road on a pull out and “camped” for the night. We had a magnificent view of Lutak Sound out of our windshield with the snowcapped Chilkat Mountains in the background. This morning we were greeted with another pod of whales breaching in the Sound in front of us.

Our weeklong string of good weather also came to an end today, as it is overcast and raining. This also ends our foray into SE Alaska. We will probably spend another day or so in Haines and then drive over the Chilkat Pass on the Haines Highway and back into Canada, before reaching central Alaska.
We hope that you all have had a good week. We have heard that it has been really hot in the lower 48. We are happy to report that we have not had that problem, here in Alaska.
Take care, Love,

Linda, Jake and the Fat Man

For more photos see: