Friday, July 7

After breakfast, our B&B hostess drove us to the Anchorage train depot. As we later discovered, all of the cruise passengers besides us met at the Sheraton and took a shuttle bus to the train station. This caused a small amount of confusion and meant that we had to carry our luggage with us all morning, but was not a huge problem.

Toothpick forest We took the sixty-mile train ride from Anchorage to Whittier. On the way, the train slowed so we could watch Dall sheep on the mountain. We also got to see some of the lasting effects of the 1964 earthquake, such as fields of dead trees (also known as "toothpick forests") that were killed when waves of salt water poured over them, and Portage, a town that was devastated in the earthquake. Much of the trip ran along Turnagain Arm. The tides in Turnagain Arm are huge, over thirty feet, and at low tide the body of water turns into mud flats that act much like quicksand for anyone trying to cross them. The tides sometimes cause problems for orca whales. When the salmon are out in numbers, beluga whales chase the salmon and the orcas chase the belugas. Although the belugas can maneuver out of the arm when the tide goes down, the orcas sometimes get stuck. At such times, the local residents will pour water on the whales to keep them alive until the tide rises again. The train ride ended with a three-mile stretch of tunnels. It used to be that the tunnel was for trains only; cars could only pass through by riding on flatbeds. Within the past year, a one-lane road was added on top of the existing train tracks to allow cars free passage through the tunnels. The town of Whittier has already begun to feel the effects of its increased accessibility.

Boats in Whittier

Chinese totem pole in Whittier It took only twenty minutes to tour the entire town of Whittier by bus. There are only two large buildings in Whittier, both built during WWII for military housing. One of them has since been converted into condominiums and now houses eighty percent of the permanent residents. The other was gutted and then abandoned, and has been falling into increasing disrepair. There is a rumor that the building was recently purchased by Princess Cruise Lines. The cars in Whittier were an amazing sight. Whittier gets around thirty-six feet of snow each year (not all at once), so cars that are not well cared for cave in from the weight of the snow and then get pushed around by snowplows. With the new road through the tunnel, cars will be coming to Whittier in increasing numbers; for that reason, the town is in the process of constructing its first parking lot. Whittier has a few very tiny restaurants and an icecream shop, as well as its own "zoo" consisting of three reindeer.

Whittier's zoo While in Whittier, we got to meet some of the other passengers, including two couples from San Diego. After a few hours in town, we boarded our cruise boat, the Spirit of Columbia. The boat had four levels, the top two open to the outside, and the second one enclosed for the dining room and lounge. Because we bought cheap tickets, we ended up in a tiny cabin in the bottom level with no windows. Small as it was, it was larger than we had expected and relatively comfortable. It had a twin bed and a double bed and space overhead for our luggage. Our private "bathroom" was extremely compact and had the toilet literally inside the shower stall.

We were very fortunate with the weather the first day (and during the whole trip, in fact). It was bright and sunny, true San Diego weather, and we could comfortably stand out on the deck in T-shirts. Our first bit of wildlife was a bird rookery on the mountainside just across from Whittier. Thousands of kittiwakes sat on their nests and flew around in swarms. The rookery was flanked by three waterfalls coming straight down from the top of the mountain. (We saw many such waterfalls throughout the trip.) A group of kayakers were resting at the bottom of the waterfall and got an even better view than we did.

Kittiwake rookery

Shortly after the start of the trip, all sixty-four passengers gathered in the dining room for a safety presentation. We also heard from Margie, the onboard naturalist (and a fellow WSU alum). Before the presentation we met Jessica, an outgoing and talkative ten-year-old from Colorado who likes skiing and horseback riding.

Julie watching the scenery The first day of the cruise, our boat headed down through Culross Passage and then continued south to Icy Bay and the Chenega Glacier. On the way, we glimpsed three sea otters swimming on their backs and diving in and out of the water like dolphins.

During dinner we ate with a couple, Jim and Barbara, celebrating their belated seventeenth wedding anniversary. Jim works for the tour company as a travel safety inspector and received the cruise as a gift from the company to make up for the fact that he has to travel away from home so much of the time. He was able to tell us quite a bit about the roads and cities of Alaska.

A passing ship

After dinner Joel went to bed and I watched a video about the 1964 earthquake, which measured 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasted for over four minutes. I tried to go to bed once the presentation was done, but was called back up on deck for a black bear sighting. The bear didn't care much for the boat and wandered away as we grew near. I went to bed at around 9:30 and had a restful sleep in our pitch black cabin for about two hours, when I was awakened by the sounds of ice chunks hitting the boat. (I know it's trite, but I was reminded of the movie Titanic.) Joel and I both went up to the deck and had hot chocolate while watching the chunks of ice in Icy Bay. Even though the sun was down at that point, it was still quite bright out. Once we were past the ice floes, we went back to bed and slept soundly for the rest of the night.

Icy Bay

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Julie Kerr, July 16, 2000