May 31, 2015

Juneau, Alaska's Capital City

The ferry ride from Petersburg to Juneau was our longest ride to date, lasting eight hours.  It was also the noisiest ride to date with lots of kids, including a school group from Petersburg.  Taking part in sports or other extracurricular activities is much more complicated in Southeast Alaska.  Traveling to another school for a softball game, for example, involves a ride on the ferry.  I think it’s great that the ferry system modifies its schedule to accommodate school and cultural activities.

It was a beautiful ride, with a little rain off and on.  It even rained the night before in Petersburg – our first real rain since we’ve been in Alaska.  I’m still not believing how fortunate we’ve been.

There was lots to see on the ferry ride.  I happened to spot a lighthouse and learned that it was the Five Finger Lighthouse, which stands on the site of the first U.S. lighthouse built in Alaska.  Completed in 1935, it is the only Art Deco style lighthouse I’ve ever seen.  This style seems to be unique to Alaska, and the Five Finger Lighthouse is one of an interesting group of Art Deco concrete towers built during the late 1920s and 1930s.

Five Finger Lighthouse

The ride through Frederick Sound provided us with a good opportunity for whale watching, and we lucked out with several humpback whale sightings.  I wasn’t very quick with the camera, but did catch a few tails.  We also spotted several glaciers.

Watch that Tail
Where's the Rest of You?

Sum Dum Glacier at the Entrance to Tracy Arm

After making it safely to Juneau, we proceeded to the Mendenhall Campground, one of the fanciest U.S. Forest Service campgrounds I’ve ever seen.  Many sites had full hookups, and the Verizon 4G signal was very fast.  It was foggy and cloudy when we arrived, and it even rained for a while.  I swear, it really did rain!  Although the campground was not full, I’m glad we had a reservation.  The campground is rather odd in that you cannot walk in and pay for a site.  All campsites must be booked through  You can do this in advance, or before 8:00 pm on your day of arrival, and there is a reservation fee as well as the campground fee.  I wouldn’t want to have to deal with trying to make a reservation online or on the phone after a long ferry ride.

For the last two weeks, Tim and I have been traveling in some pretty remote parts of British Columbia and Alaska.  We’ve hiked, driven, and boated in wilderness-like areas and have only seen one bear, and that one was along a major highway.  So, imagine my surprise as we were driving in a “suburban” area of Juneau, in the middle of the day, when a mama bear and her three cubs walked across the road in front of the car in front of us.  I usually have my camera handy, but not that day.  I was watching the action as I scrambled to pull out the camera to record the moment.  It’s a pretty lousy photograph, but I will include it anyway.  I assumed that Tim would pull over so I could get a better photo, but no, he just kept going.  I was incredulous.  A mama bear and her cubs – isn’t that worth a stop?  He was completely oblivious to the moment.  Too many elk jams while we lived in Estes Park, I guess.

A Happy Family

Almost every cruise ship visits Juneau, and there are so many things to do here that it can make your head spin – walking tours, whale watching tours, flightseeing tours, helicopter tours that land on a glacier, fishing charters – you name it, you can do it here.

Juneau has a nice downtown that is set on a hill that steps down to the water.  As the state capital, government is a major focus.  We enjoyed walking through the downtown area and visiting some of the historic buildings.  We toured St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, a very picturesque structure and the only remaining octagonal Russian Orthodox church in Alaska.  We learned that a major preservation project is underway. 

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church

The Iconic Onion Dome
The Iconostasis Was Shipped from Russia

We had hoped to tour the State Capitol Building and the Alaska State Museum.  It turns out that quite a few state buildings are currently being retrofitted, or replaced, all at the same time, so we struck out on both of those.  We were able to get as far as the lobby of the Capitol, which features a unique cornice with Alaskan motifs, as well as WPA-era relief panels.  The building is one of the few Art Deco style capitol buildings in the United States.

Renovation of the State Capitol Will Include a Seismic Retrofit

Lobby of the State Capitol

I had never really associated Alaska with Art Deco style architecture, but I have come across quite a few buildings, including the Capitol, several downtown commercial buildings and even lighthouses.  It’s been fun to actually seek them out.

We wandered by the Governor’s Mansion and took the steps down to the dock area.  Since the Alaska State Museum was closed, we decided to visit the brand new Walter Soboleff Center, a cultural center for the Sealaska Heritage Institute.  Sealaska is the regional Native corporation in Southeast Alaska, and the institute seeks to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.

Dedicated just two weeks ago, the center’s is a fabulous addition to downtown Juneau.  The center is a visual delight, from the interesting architecture to the monumental works of art that were created for the building.  The center allows Alaska Natives to share their heritage, culture and arts with the rest of the world.  Although the main exhibit was small, it was very well done.  The exhibit illustrates the traditions that are based on the four cultural values of the three Native Alaskan peoples – family, land, strength and balance.  A mixture of contemporary and historic pieces illustrate these core values, and the pieces were true works of art.

Monumental Artwork on the Exterior of the Center

Cultural Values Reflected in Art

Almost everyone who travels to Juneau visits Mendenhall Glacier, an “urban” glacier and one that you can actually drive to.  Of course, we wanted to go as well, but we really hoped to avoid the cruise ship crowds.  That’s a little more difficult in Juneau, since the ships often do not leave until late in the evening.  We thought 5:30 pm might be a good in between time, and indeed it was.  Several buses were just leaving, and another group did not arrive until we were heading out.  That was good timing.  Late afternoon is also the best time of day for photographs.  Although the visitor center is open until 7:30 pm, we found that the face of the glacier is in shadows by around 6:30 pm, depending on the month, so don’t wait too late in day to go.

Mendenhall Glacier is an impressive sight, and it is neat to be able to get so close to it.  Mendenhall is a tidewater glacier, a glacier that descends to the sea and typically breaks off into icebergs.  It’s also a glacier that should be visited sooner rather than later.  The glacier is shrinking, and it is amazing to see how far the ice has retreated in just a short period of time.

Mendenhall Glacier

Enjoying the View with Few People Around

I Love the Blue Ice

Tim and I have been enjoying all of the delicious seafood that Alaska has to offer.  One surprise, however, on almost every menu has been fish tacos.  Almost every restaurant, whether funky or elegant, features them prominently.  I love fish tacos, and I’ve made it my mission to sample as many as possible.  It’s amazing how different each one is prepared, but I’ve enjoyed them all.  The ones in Juneau at the Capital Cafe contained halibut and were quite tasty.

Tasty Halibut Tacos

We had planned one major tour for our visit to Juneau, and that was a day trip to Glacier Bay National Park.  I’ll tell you all about it in the next post.

May 28, 2015

Planning a Trip to Alaska on the Ferry, With a Pet

Most RVers who travel to Alaska drive to and from the Lower 48 through British Columbia and the Yukon.  But there is another way to get there, and that is on the Alaska Marine Highway, better known as the Alaska ferry.  If you are traveling with a pet, however, there are certain considerations that you must take into account.  Even if you are not traveling with pets, this post may help you with the general planning process.

The ferry, or Alaska Marine Highway System, is operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation and serves mostly communities that cannot be reached by road.  The Alaska Marine Highway is 3,500 miles in length and stretches from Washington State to the Aleutian Islands.  The highway has the distinction of being the only marine route designated as both a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road.

The Alaska Marine Highway is a Scenic Byway

Most RVers limit their ferry travel to Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage.  Travel by ferry allows you to see this part of Alaska, which is entirely different than the rest of the state.  Most of the communities along the Inside Passage are accessible only by boat or plane.  It’s an incredibly beautiful part of the state.  If you travel this route, you will end up in either Haines or Skagway, where roads connect to the interior.  From there you can continue your journey into the interior on the Alaska Highway.

Planning a trip on the ferry is not as easy as planning a driving trip.  It’s a lot more complicated, and a lot of pieces have to fall into place to pull it off.  Don’t plan on trying to put together a ferry trip over a single weekend.  It will likely take a little longer than that.  Starting the planning process six months in advance is not too soon.

If you are considering the idea of taking your pet on the ferry, it’s a good idea to get advice from your veterinarian, and possibly your own therapist, before making a final decision.  We are thoroughly enjoying this means of travel, and our cat is getting along just fine.  Some RVers, however, may decide that ferry travel and certain pets just don’t go together.

There are two departure ports, Bellingham, Washington, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.  Most people with pets select Prince Rupert, but I’ll mention some of the advantages and disadvantages of each port for those who are pet-less. 

The Ferry Route through the Inside Passage

Bellingham is closer to most places in the United States, and the ferry route from here will get you to Alaska much sooner.  It’s a 38-hour ride to Ketchikan, the first port of call, so you will be on the ship for a long time.  This is also the most expensive option, especially if you book a cabin, which would certainly make the voyage more comfortable.  Part of the route is in open water, so the seas could be quite a bit rougher than those in the Inside Passage.   If your time is limited, however, this route would be a great option.

The M/V Columbia Sails from Bellingham

Departing from Prince Rupert requires a rather long, but beautiful, drive through British Columbia.  The cost is about half that of the Bellingham route, and you arrive in Ketchikan in just over five hours.

We selected Prince Rupert for several reasons, only one of which was the cost.  Pets are not permitted to join you on the ferry deck and must remain in your RV or vehicle while the ferry is in motion.  On longer sailings, ferry personnel will escort you to the car deck for brief walks or feedings several times a day.  However, we felt that 37 hours was just too long to leave our cat alone in the RV.  I think most RVers with pets, especially dogs, would tend to agree.

"Why Do I Have to Stay Behind?"

If you cannot (or do not) want to leave your pet alone in your RV for a minimum of eight hours, do not even consider traveling to Alaska by ferry.  At least one leg of your journey will be that long.  If you do decide to take your pet, you will want to closely plan your itinerary and take note of how long each leg of the journey will take.  Although we wanted to visit as many ports as possible, a secondary reason for planning so many stops was to limit the amount of time our cat would be by herself in the RV.

By starting in Prince Rupert and then stopping in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Juneau, our longest ferry ride was eight hours.  From Juneau, we then could catch a fast ferry to and from Sitka, returning to Juneau for a day or two before the final leg to Haines.  If you decide to skip one of these towns, and settle for a much longer ride, you can retrieve your pet while the ferry is docked and get off for a walk.  However, be advised that stops are often no more than an hour or so, so that’s not much of a break for your furry friend.

The M/V Matanuska Sails from Prince Rupert

Even if you are not traveling with a pet, I highly recommend scheduling a stop at as many ports as possible, as well as staying awhile.  Every town is different, and there are lots of things to do and see, especially after the cruise ships depart in the afternoon.  If you simply remain on the ferry from Bellingham or Prince Rupert to Juneau, you will not really experience what the Inside Passage is all about. 

When you decide to travel will also have a bearing on the number of days you can spend in each port.  Early in the season the ferry schedule is more limited, and ships call at some ports only twice a week.  When we looked at schedules for a mid-May departure, we discovered that our choice was to stop for just an hour or two, or three or four days, in each port.  If you only want to spend a day in each town, like the cruise ships do, that may not be possible on a ferry.  A cruise may actually be a better option for you.  As the summer progresses, the frequency of sailings does tend to increase, and there are more frequent offerings from large ports like Juneau.

We Actually Made Our Own Spreadsheet to Help Us Figure Out the Schedules

If you decide that ferry travel is the way to go, it is important to make reservations early, sometimes as soon as the booking window opens.  This is especially true for the most popular routes and for travel to and from Bellingham.  You must also book a cabin early, as these tend to fill quickly.  We made our reservations in January for a May departure and had no problems getting our preferred dates.

Although it is possible to pitch a tent on the ferry deck, or stretch out on one of the lounge chairs, we were very happy that we had reserved a cabin when we boarded the ferry at 3:15 am in Ketchikan.  Just remember to dress warmly.  Our cabin was freezing that night.

Even if you are not the type of traveler that typically makes campground reservations, you may want to think about reserving a site after you make your ferry reservation.  There are very few campgrounds in the small towns, and even fewer with hookups.  Most campgrounds are very small and tend to fill up quickly.  We were happy that we had reservations, especially when our ferry pulled in at 10:15 in the evening.  That’s not when you want to start looking for a place to stay for the night.

With all of that said, you must also be flexible with your schedule.  Ferry schedules do change, and you may have to leave a day earlier than planned or stay longer.  You will be at the mercy of weather and mechanical breakdowns, as well as state budget cuts, as many people are finding out this summer.  As of July 1, one ferry will be taken out of service, and the schedule from Prince Rupert will be cut in half.

Schedule Changes Happen Frequently

The FVF Chenega Is a Fast Ferry, But Is Grounded Today by Mechanical Issues

Ferry schedules are complicated.  Although you can book your entire trip online, even the Alaska Marine Highway folks suggest calling and speaking with one of their very helpful representatives.  Keep in mind that most legs are on slow ferries, but see if there are other options.  For example, we are taking a fast-ferry to Sitka from Juneau, saving us five hours.

Travel by ferry is expensive, but remember that it does save wear and tear on your RV, as well as offer savings on fuel.  Ferry pricing is also a bit complicated.  RVs are charged by the foot.  Each passenger is ticketed separately.  There is also a pet charge from Bellingham and Prince Rupert (but not between Alaska ports).  Just like airline travel, each port-to-port leg is charged a separate fee, so if you are making five stops you will have five tickets with five different fees.

One last thing to remember if you are planning to bring your pet on the ferry.  The State of Alaska requires that pets boarding the ferry in Bellingham or Prince Rupert have a current health certificate, not just a current rabies certificate.  The real kicker is this health certificate cannot be more than 30 days old at the time of departure.  That can be a real issue if your vet is in Florida or Texas, or any place more than a 30-day journey to your departure city.

We solved that problem by selecting Petsmart for our vet needs.  Most Petsmart locations house a Banfield Pet Hospital, and records are available at any location.  Our cat had her annual exam and shots while we were in Colorado, and we then visited another Banfield while we were in Oregon.  If you have one of the wellness plans, the second visit is covered at no charge.  The vet in Oregon looked at her exam results from Colorado, gave her a quick check and signed off on her health certificate.  I would not get the certificate too soon, however, just in case there are changes to the ferry schedule.  You don’t want the certificate to expire the day before boarding a delayed ferry.  Two to three weeks before departure should be fine.  If you don’t use a pet hospital with a national presence, I’m sure you could make an appointment with a vet near the Canadian border and bring copies of your pet’s records. 

Although this post focuses on taking the ferry northbound (since that’s what we’re doing right now), you may prefer to end your Alaska adventure with a southbound voyage.  There are advantages to both.  If you travel north, you can often leave earlier in May and not be too worried about snow.  May and June are the driest months in Southeast Alaska, and there are fewer people early in the season.  Traveling northward is a more relaxing way to begin your journey, and by the time you reach the Alaska Highway, the roads in the Yukon and interior Alaska may have been repaired (we’ll let you know if that’s true!).

There are also advantages to taking the ferry south.  You can stay in the interior later in the season and not be too concerned about snow on your return to the Lower 48.  After a long summer of driving, you won’t have another long drive home.  If you wait until the end of the summer, there will be fewer people.  Even if you think you will be too tired, however, don’t make the mistake of skipping the ports.  You’ll regret it if you do.

Whichever way you choose, I don’t think you will regret an adventure on the ferry.

May 26, 2015

Pretty Petersburg

Known for its Norwegian heritage, Petersburg is another small town on the Inside Passage.  Unlike Wrangell, which is actively trying to woo tourism, Petersburg views tourists as a “necessary evil.”  At least, that’s how one Petersburg native described us in a movie shown at the local museum.  I’m not offended, and I actually understand where he’s coming from.

Petersburg is a pretty town and is more manicured, and wealthier, than Wrangell.  Commercial fishing has a huge presence here, and the town harbors one of Alaska’s most prosperous fishing fleets.  I was surprised to learn that this town of only 3,000 residents was ranked the seventeenth fishing port in the United States by volume and twelfth by value as of 2013.  That’s a lot of fish.  

We enjoyed our walking tour of the downtown area and sought out the buildings that capture the flavor of Alaska’s Little Norway.  One of the first we spotted was the Sons of Norway Hall, which was built in 1912.  Adjacent to the hall is the Valhalla, a replica of a traditional Viking ship.  The center of early Petersburg was Sing Lee Alley, and many of the town’s historic buildings are preserved here.

Sons of Norway Hall

The Valhalla

Sing Lee Alley

Rosemailing - A Traditional Norwegian Art Form

Low Tide

Most of the towns in Southeast Alaska hold a salmon derby at some point during the month of May, and Petersburg’s King Salmon Derby was underway during the Memorial Day weekend.  We stopped by the harbor on our walk and watched as a man presented his salmon for a weigh-in.  It was only 21 pounds, but I was still impressed.  We never did learn the final results, but the front runner seemed to be a salmon that topped 50 pounds.  

That's What a 21-Pound King Salmon Looks Like

Petersburg is visited by even fewer cruise ships than Wrangell, and only the smallest are able to dock here.  While we were wandering down by the harbor, I was surprised to see the National Geographic Sea Bird, a 62-passenger ship.  This ship reminded me of the one I sailed on when I cruised the Inside Passage many years ago.  These are expedition ships, not luxury cruise liners, and the focus is entirely on Alaska, not entertainment or gambling.  If I were ever to take another Alaskan cruise, a small ship would be my preference.

One of the Many Harbors in Petersburg

The Sea Bird

Since we had enjoyed Petroglyph Beach so much while we were in Wrangell, we wanted to visit the one here.  We had also read that remnants of 2,000-year-old Tlingit fish traps could be found on the beach.  We gathered as much information as we could find and headed to Sandy Beach during low tide.  We must have searched for an hour or more, but we completely struck out.  Oh well, we did have fun looking.

They've Got to Be Here Somewhere

On another day we drove the length of Mitkof Island on which Petersburg is located and stopped at many of the pullouts along the way.  We walked a short trail to Blind River Rapids and passed through a muskeg bog before reaching the water.  Although the rapids seemed pretty tame to me, we enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere at water’s edge.

Time for a Little Reflection

Blind River Rapids Area

Alaskan Lupines Lined both Sides of Mitkof Highway

We finally paid a visit to the Clausen Memorial Museum that provides a glimpse into the history of Petersburg.  This was your typical small-town museum, with a few exhibits and collections that were mostly donated by local residents.  The museum did have the original third-order Fresnel lens from the Cape Decision Lighthouse on display, and the docent illuminated it for us. 

We’ve met several RVers since we’ve been here, including two Australian couples who pulled into the sites next to us yesterday evening.  We seemed to run into them wherever we went today, and it’s been fun hearing about their adventures in Alaska.  Because the towns in the Inside Passage are so small, and because the ferry schedules are rather limited, many RVers tend to arrive and depart on the same ferry, and we tend to recognize each other and get to know one another.  We met another lovely couple from California at our campground in Ketchikan and took the ferry together to Wrangell, where we both had booked the same campground once again.  We finally parted ways as we got off the ferry in Petersburg and they continued on to Juneau.  It’s been nice seeing familiar faces and sharing ideas.

It’s been a pleasant stay in Petersburg, and we have enjoyed some downtime before the more hectic schedule we have planned for Juneau.  We will be catching the ferry tomorrow morning for the eight-hour ride to Alaska’s capital.  Maybe we’ll see some marine wildlife on this leg of the journey.

May 25, 2015

Through Wrangell Narrows to Petersburg

First of all, Happy Memorial Day everyone.  It seems that most businesses in Southeast Alaska honor the real meaning of the holiday and close for the day.  That’s nice to see, and we don’t mind not being able to visit some of these places today.  Also, Happy Birthday to me!  What a wonderful place to spend my big day.

When we boarded the ferry in Wrangell on Saturday evening for our three-hour trip to Petersburg, we knew this might be the most exciting ferry ride in the Inside Passage.  Not long after pulling out of the harbor, we began to enter Wrangell Narrows, a 22-mile long channel that is one of the most difficult navigational stretches in Southeast Alaska. 

Getting Ready to Enter Wrangell Narrows

The Narrows, as it is known by locals, is off-limits to large cruise ships because of depth and width restrictions, and the Alaska Marine Highway ferries are the largest vessels that are able to navigate the stretch.  Although approximately 60 markers and buoys mark both sides of the channel, it is still a challenge to make it through.  Ferries must travel during high tide, as the region’s big tides can cause the water level to rise or fall by as much as 23 feet.  A crew member must stand watch at the bow of the ferry for the entire passage.  

There's Not a Lot of Room to Maneuver

We Have to Fit Between those Markers

Almost every passenger on board must have been aware of the special nature of this route since the observation deck was full, and many people were standing outside to watch our passage through the Narrows.  Joining us on board was an off-duty first officer, who explained what we were seeing.  When we asked him why he was traveling as a passenger when he’s sailed this route hundreds of times, he credited his mother.  She had always wanted to travel the Wrangell Narrows, so he was accompanying her.  Nice son.

It seemed as though we could reach out and touch some of the markers, but it was smooth sailing all the way.  We were so fortunate that it was still light for most of the passage.  I feel bad for those passengers who have to travel through this special place in the middle of the night.

A Beautiful Evening for the Ride

Nice Cloud

Even Small Boats Don't Like to Travel the Narrows at Night or in the Fog

That Was Close

The owner of Frog’s RV Park waited up for us to arrive after the ferry docked in Petersburg at 10:15 pm, and we checked in.  The campground appeared to be an odd one, but it was dark and we were tired, so we pulled into our site and went to bed.  In the morning we looked around, and indeed it is an odd park.  If we had any site other than the one we are in (site 27, which is parallel to Wrangell Narrows and has a nice view), I would not be a happy camper.

The owner is very nice and accommodating, but the park is very small and is filled with construction workers and some of the strangest trailers I’ve ever seen.  One looks like a box car on stilts.  Just north of the park, but within full view, is a row of old trailers and shipping containers stacked two high, each with one living unit.  A barge dock facility is also within view of our site, and the activity there can be a bit noisy.

We just hung out here on Sunday and relaxed, and I have to admit that the RV park is growing on me a bit.  The Wi-Fi is good, and the owner gave us homemade krumkake, a Norwegian waffle cookie.  She asked us how many nights we’d like to pay for (our reservation was for four nights, but she apparently thought we might not want to stay the entire time).  I’m also finding it very interesting to watch the goings-on at the barge dock.  In the afternoon, the town’s weekly grocery delivery arrived by barge.  In the evening, the M/V Columbia, the largest Alaska Marine Highway ferry, passed by in front of our site.

Norwegian Krumkake

Groceries for the Week Arriving by Barge

The M/V Columbia Passing By

We Can't Complain About Our Site

Unless you can snag site 27 or absolutely need full hookups, you probably would not be happy at Frog’s.  We’re fine here because the view of the Narrows is beautiful and Kitty has a nice grassy area where she can hang out.  I can turn my back on the rest of the park and either sit outside, or look through our windows, and be captivated by the view.