The Inside Passage and Alaska

It is three days since we set sail from Vancouver to cruise the Inside Passage, that maze of straits, and channels along the Canadian and Alaskan coastlines through the myriad of offshore islands.

The towns in Alaska that we visited are all about their waterways, snow and ice, mountains and glaciers, wildlife, the native peoples and just a small population in this the largest state in the Union.

We made two stops in Alaska at Ketchikan and the capital, Juneau, as well as cruising Glacier Bay.

We continue to be astounded by our good fortune with the weather. This is the last cruise of this season before their winter break in this part of the world, and we have had good to perfect weather almost every day.

Ketchikan

A cute town that is supposedly the wettest place in Alaska with up the 300 days of rain a year resulting in several feet of rainfall.

Volendam at Ketchikan

Our excursion into the Misty Fjords showed us how steeply the mountains fall into the sea and here we had many waterfalls dropping down from the heights delivering the rain.

Juneau

Although the state capital it is isolated, without any roads in or out, and we have been told a few times that there are only three to get to Juneau:

  1. by water
  2. by float plane
  3. by the birth canal
Misty Fjord

Tourism is very important here, and it is possible that up to seven cruise ships will berth some days in peak season. As the last cruise of the season we had the place to ourselves and quite a few of the gift shops had already closed down.

Mendenhall Glacier

On our Juneau excursion we were guaranteed whale sightings (or money back) and we were not disappointed. Taken to the humpback whales regular summer feeding waters we saw at least half a dozen of them. Within the next few weeks they would be starting their annual migration to Hawaiian waters for calving and mating before returning in May. This excursion also took us to the Mendenhall glacier before returning to town where some opted for the cable car ride to the top of the mountain behind the town, and of course there was the mandatory visit to the famous Red Dog Saloon.

The Red Dog Saloon

We took in all the important sights…

Glacier Bay

The next morning after leaving Juneau, at about 9am we cruised into the spectacular Glacier Bay under cloudless blue skies. The weather gods are still with us and we have a perfect day. The ship’s crew suggested it was one of the best, if not the best, day of the season to view the wonders of the glaciers.

We spent several hours getting up close and personal to a couple of glaciers, most notably the John Hopkins glacier and the Margerie glacier and, in almost complete awed silence, listening to the noises produced as the ice moved and cracked under the pressure of the weight of miles of glacier from up the mountain. The Margerie glacier is said to move up to six feet a day.

Margerie Glacier

Our next stop was to be two days hence at Dutch Harbour, but the weather gods must have decided that we had had our share of good weather. Three low pressure systems were forecast in the area over the next couple of days, making the cruise both uncomfortable and the tender berthing at Dutch Harbour not possible. Instead of continuing northwards, we turned west on the sea journey Across the North Pacific.

Canada – Travels and Some History

On our travels to Canada we are only visiting the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. Their provincial border was designated as the continental divide in the Rocky Mountains, where the watershed changes from westward to the Pacific to eastward to the Atlantic or Arctic Oceans.

We arrived in Canada during their 150 year celebrations for becoming an independent nation. As you might imagine we have learned quite bit about the history of this country along the way.

Wikipedia tells us that “According to archaeological and genetic evidence North and South America were the last continents in the world with human habitation.” and “Around 16,500 years ago, the glaciers began melting, allowing people to move south and east into Canada and beyond.”

The “European” history of Canada started in the east generally with French settlement way back in the 1500s. The British rule started in 1763 and settlement of the west from the late 1700s.

Our Rocky Mountaineer Commemorative badge
Our Rocky Mountaineer Commemorative badge

The current 150 anniversary celebrations are quite prominent although they probably don’t have quite the same significance in British Columbia. When the Dominion of Canada became an independent country on July 1, 1867, British Columbia (BC) was not one of the four provinces in that union and was still a separate territory. However Canada became concerned about the lack of access to the Pacific Ocean and after Russia sold Alaska to the United States, and the possibility of their further expansion, there was even more reason to have BC join Canada. The deal was sealed when BC was offered relief from its significant debts and the promise of the construction of a trans-continental railway to connect BC with the eastern provinces. So in 1871 British Columbia became part of Canada. Of course, the railway was not completed until 1885 but having seen some of the terrain through which it had to pass it is a wonder that it was constructed at all. You have to give it to those civil engineers…

We also picked up some history of western Canada including about the fur trading, the gold rushes and the contact with the First Nations peoples. We learned about how some of these peoples lived and specifically the Blackfoot nation. How they adapted to changes such as the coming of horses to North America after the Spanish introduced them in Mexico. We learned how the bison herds were slaughtered from an estimated 30 million in the 1600s to just 345 animals in 1872 (before exerted efforts were made to ensure their survival).

Some additional facts:

  • Canada is the second largest country in area in the world after Russia.

  • The name “Canada” likely comes from the native word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement” and was used generally from the mid-1500s and started to be used officially in the late 1700s.

  • The maple flag was adopted in its current form in 1965.

Looking at Canada there are many similarities with Australia but also many differences resulting from their longer history and their harsher climate.

Captain James Cook – Christ Church Cathedral

The Canadian Rockies

Our party of four; Jenny and I together with Margaret and Arthur flew out on a long wide sweep through the Far East and depositing us in Vancouver, British Columbia. Canada has always been high on Jenny’s bucket list and I was more than happy to tag along – a good move.

Off on the Rock Mountaineer

We set off in the Rocky Mountaineer early the next morning on our Canadian Rockies tour, the first two day leg taking us to Jasper The Rocky Mountaineer was a surprisingly big operation with 2 locos, 20 cars and 745 passengers all farewelled by a kilted bag-piper who played various tunes including a verse of Waltzing Matilda.

The fearless foursome

Our carriage with its domed half-glass roof enabled a wonderful view of the countryside through which we passed, and being almost at the rear of the train we were able to see most of the long procession as it snaked its way alongside a number of rivers. First it was the Fraser River, then branching off on the Thompson and on the second day, the North Thompson. I must remind myself to research the pioneers, Simon Fraser and David Thompson who gave their names to these streams. The rivers were always fast flowing with intermittent rapids indicating both the quantity of water and the continually rising terrain. The scenery was very different to the Aussie landscape and I found the uniform shape of the conifer trees on the hills and mountains strangely relaxing. At times it was almost as though a patterned cover was thrown over the slopes.

Aboard the Rock Mountaineer

Jenny was the designated chief wildlife spotter. She was quite successful with our feathered friends including a couple of bald eagles. However, she disappointed in terms of elks and moose, but a black bear and cub were sighted at a distance frolicking across the river. We were notified by radio from the front of the train when approaching some bighorn sheep and we saw a couple close to the tracks. The males (rams) have longer curved horns than the females – they are hornier (Canadian Joke).

We soon realised that the railways play a big role in this part of the world. The trans-continental Canadian Pacific line opened up western Canada when it was completed in 1885. Twenty years later in answer to increased demand another line, the Canadian National Railway was also finished. We were amazed by the amount of freight traffic that we passed on the trip either in sidings off the main single line or across the river on the opposing line. Much of the freight was in containers stacked two high. At one stage Jenny counted 166 cars as we passed and we are told trains can be over 200 cars long.

Our long train

We over-nighted at Kamloops on the Thompson River. This city ranks highest for hot summers in Canada with a semi arid climate and an annual rainfall of 8 inches (200mm), being in the northern part of a desert system that runs up from near the Mexican border.

On the train, the service was exceptional and we really didn’t want for food or drinks. With and sight-seeing the two days passed quickly.

The second leg of our Rockies tour started with a motor coach to Banff. This is normally a three hour drive but with all the sight seeing our bus took nine hours for this trip and, oh boy, did we some magnificent scenery. It was quite different to the first two days as we got away from those big rivers and into in the Rockies proper where the higher rocky mountain peaks were snow-covered and with glaciers in between. At one stop we transferred to a large 4WD vehicle and drove up onto one glacier. Part of the commentary during the trip included sad facts about how quickly the glaciers were receding.

The next morning in Banff started very cold with low clouds which fortunately cleared enough in the afternoon so we could take the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. There, while a light dusting of snow fell, we were able to appreciate the view of the various mountains surrounding the town and between which the Bow River wound its way through glacier shaped valleys.

Banff from Sulphur Mountain

Today the coach took us just down the road to Lake Louise; that idyllic spot with our Chateau Hotel and one end of the turquoise lake and snow-covered mountains and glacier, that looks like a painted scene, at the other. My photos could not possibly do it justice. A few minutes sitting and gazing at the scene provokes an almost unreal sense of peace.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise and the Chateau Hotel

Tomorrow we head off on the last two day stage of our Rockies tour by coach back to Vancouver again via Kamloops.