By Jim Smith
If you want to have the vacation of a lifetime, my wife Lynn and I suggest a two-week cruise to Alaska on Holland America. We recently took that voyage on the MS Maasdam with retired radio personality Garrison Keillor. We had 42 meals on the ship; they were outstanding. We went to a show almost every night. But what made the trip truly great were onboard lectures and shore excursions.
We attended lectures/slide shows with former Juneau mayor Fran Ulmer; naturalist/filmmaker Nan Elliot; married naturalists Rich MacDonald and Natalie Springuel; retired teacher/author Ray Hudson and Native Alaskan activist Willie Hensley. We learned about the birds, bears, dolphins and whales that we saw on our excursions and about this immense territory that the United States purchased from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. It achieved statehood in 1959.
Alaska and its islands comprise about one-fifth the area of the lower forty-eight states but have only about 700,000 people. More than half live in and around Anchorage, which is warmed by ocean currents and rarely has temperatures below zero. The state has immense tracts of federally protected forests and 29,000 square miles of glaciers. Its major industries are fishing, natural gas/oil production, and tourism.
Under the 1971 Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act, 44 million acres are owned by 12 regional Native corporations, which share revenue from companies in them. Since 1976, an Alaska Permanent Fund, which has grown via investments to $54 billion, spins off annual dividend payments to eligible residents.
We learned from Ulmer and Elliot that Alaska does not allow farm-raising of salmon, but has a hatchery program. They told us about gold rushes, Alaska’s pioneering spirit and the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race. We learned that Alaska is warming at four times the global rate and that villages are being relocated due to coastal erosion. Fifty percent of the state used to be covered year-round in ice and snow; now only five percent is. Since 1950, Alaska has warmed an average of 4 degrees in summer and 7 degrees in winter. Anchorage had rain in January this year.
Hudson taught in the Aleutian Islands from 1964-92 and wrote a book, “Moments Placed Rightly: An Aleutian Memoir.” He lectured about the living conditions, fishing industry and basket-weaving techniques of the Aleuts. Hudson also talked about World War II attacks by the Japanese which resulted in 549 American deaths, about 2,500 Japanese deaths and forced relocation of the Aleuts.
Hensley, born above the Arctic Circle, was sent to boarding school in Tennessee, graduated from George Washington University, was involved in formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives and development of the world’s largest lead and zinc mine. He wrote a memoir, “Fifty Miles from Tomorrow.”
The highlights of our trip:
*Sighting two pods of humpback whales on a small boat excursion out of Icy Strait Point (907-945-3141, IcyPoint Strait.com). Our boat got within about 1,000 feet of a pod of three that was feeding on herring. We heard and saw them as they burst out of the water, then dove, slapping their flukes and disappearing. Icy Strait Point is in Alaska’s largest Native Tlingit village, Hoonah, 35 miles west of Juneau on Chichagof Island, and is owned and operated by the tribe.
*Viewing three rescued black bears and five brown bears at the Fortress of the Bear (907-747-3032, www.fortressofthebear.org), a former waste water site for a pump mill, after a bus trip out of Sitka. The trip included a visit to an aquarium/salmon hatchery and the Alaska Raptor Center (907-747-8662, www.alaskaraptor.org), where 17 injured bald eagles and other predator birds are being rehabilitated.
*Seeing moose, bears, wolves, muskox, foxes and other critters at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (907-783-2025, www.alaskawildlife.org) after a bus trip from Anchorage to Portage, in a valley surrounded by mountains, where we also took a small boat to view a glacier.
*Getting to within a half-mile of the six-mile long Hubbard Glacier, which is as large as Rhode Island and at a point where 25 glaciers converge in Disenchantment Bay. We viewed the 300-foot high wall of ice with commentary from a naturalist from the Maasdam’s 12th floor Crow’s Nest lounge.
*Taking a cruise on our last day from Lake Union, Wash., through a lock, into Puget Sound for a view of the Seattle skyline as coincidentally the Maasdam sailed out without us for its next trip to Alaska.
*Watching (and smelling) salmon returning from the ocean and collecting to spawn in the fresh waters in which they were born behind Creek Street in Ketchikan (www.visit-ketchikan.com), where on a previous cruise we had visited Totem Bight State Historical Park (907-247-8574, dnr.alaska.gov/parks). We also visited the Tongass Historical Museum (907-225-5600, www.ktn-ak-us/tongass-historical-museum), where was saw a photo exhibit of the city’s fishing history.
*Touring the Alutiiq Museum (907-486-7004, alutiiqmuseum.org) and the National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center (1-888-408-3514, www.fws.gov/refuge/kodiak) on Kodiak Island.
*Taking a city tour of Juneau in a small coach. Since it was overcast and drizzling, we resisted the urge to take the Mount Roberts Tramway (1-888-461-8726, mountrobertstramway.com), Juneau’s top attraction, but found out where the good shopping is.
*Visiting the Royal BC Museum (1-888-447-7977, royalbcmuseum.ca) in Victoria, B.C. We enjoyed its exhibit on mastodons and wooly mammoths as well as its towering totems and preserved Native crafts.
I am a 1966 graduate of Chaminade High School in Mineola, NY. I graduated from Nassau Community College in 1968 and Hofstra University in 1970. I was a sports reporter at Newsday from 1966-1999, covering 5 Super Bowls and 9 Stanley Cup Finals. I was a features desk copy editor from 2000 to Dec. 31, 2014, when I retired. I am married to Lynn, a social worker, since April 9, 1978, We have one son, Peter, 33, an air traffic controller in Ohio.