Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Adventure - Gold Panning in Alaska - by Nicholas

(Note: this is a journal Nicholas wrote on 9/13/2009. It was lightly edited by his mom. Pictures were taken by his mom as well, he was too excited to take pictures:))

On August 4th, 2009, after taking some pictures at Mendenhall Glacier my mom and I went to gold panning near a very murky river. Our guide taught us how to pan for gold. He said: “Put some water in your pan, swirl the sand around, then tilt the pan to let the water out. After that, remove the top layer of sand. Then add more water and keep doing it.” He gave us each a pan of dirt and told us that gold is heavy and will end up at the bottom of the pan, the rusty pan is easier for the gold to hang on.

I held on my heavy pan and gingerly tried to swirl it. But on the third tap I dumped all the sand out into the creek. Our guide gave me another pan. This time I asked my mom to help me. As she removed the dirt layer by layer, I saw something glittering at the bottom of the pan. I was very excited, it was real gold! Later our guide gave us a vial to put our gold in. I held on tightly to my vial of treasure. It was awesome.

Travel note: young kids, and apparently old people, like gold panning. For Nicholas, gold panning was more exciting than looking at glaciers. - Allan

Whales at Alaska Sea

We saw whales while our cruise Ryndam sailed at sea. But they were far and the cruise won't stop for us to observe the whales more. The best whale watching is from excursions on a smaller boat. We had our best whale watching experience from Juneau 'Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest' and from Sitka 'Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest'. The sea outside Juneau is a year round orca whale (a.k.a. killer whale, the whales we see at Sea World) feeding ground. Whale watching is essentially guaranteed.

At Juneau, as our Catamaran speeding to the whale feeding ground, the Mendenhall glaciers we walked on a few hours ago, were in sight at 6 o'clock direction, with foreground of blue sea, blue sky and green mountains. They were once more mystic, intriguing and gravitational. What a magnificent visual feast! It is noted that on a boat or ship, the direction is usually described in terms of clock - with the direction of sailing, or the direction of the bow, be 12 o'clock, 90 degree to the right be 3 o'clock, 90 degree to the left be 9 o'clock, and etc.

The first sighting of the trip was two whales swimming at 1 o'clock direction. It was the most exciting one even though the whales were far away, what we saw were just the black backs of the whales up and down in the sea. As the whales swam around, people swung from one side of the ship to the other, wherever whales popped into scene. All tourists on board had a kind of suppressed excitement, only whispers and click of camera shutters could be heard, in addition to captain's announcement or comments from the public announcer.

Of course, more sightings and most spectacular one came later of the trip.

As the boat reached the feeding ground, it slowed down and we had more and more whale sightings. A group of 4 or 5 whales were swimming along a shallow water by some half submersed rocks (tiny island?), they swam in a line, one after another, sprouting, going up and down, splashing water to one another occasionally, backstroking, having a good time. We, the tourists had a good time as well, we stayed away from them (the water there was too shallow for our Catamaran any way) , using binoculars, cameras to watch and record the whale's performance. All you heard on board at this time was just the sound of camera shutter clicking, and occasionally "wow' and "oh".

In another area, we saw a group of 9 whales, swimming in a circle, sea gulls and other sea birds circling above them close to a shoreline. Apparently they were feeding, in fact they were bubble net feeding according to our captain. We saw them frequently diving, display their magnificent tails - orca whale tail has a white pattern on it, which is unique to each whale, just like Human finger print. All of us were trying hard to have a perfect whale tail picture. Using my new Nikon camera, I could get really good pictures of the whales. After a while, people, including me, lost their initial intense concentration. At this time, a rare "full breach" occurred, a whale jumped out of water!!. I saw the whole breaching process, but only caught a blurred falling down whale. A big splash, and a totally astonished audience. - WOW! The captain's comment: "You never know what will happen next!"

During Sitka 'Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest' excursion, even though the main attraction was sea otters, on the way to see sea otters, whales gave us spectacular diving shows. As this time the whales were in the middle of sea, our boat was much closer to the whales than that during the Juneau trip. One time two whales swimming at 9 o'clock direction, they moved up and down, up and down, then their lower body bent above water, the tails went up, they dived deep to catch fish. I had a hard time to have a perfect picture of the whale tail because I somehow always just missed the moment of a whale tail's full upright display.

Fortunately, there was a naturalist on board. I guess that she realized that some people had a hard time to catch the moment of tail up. She told us that a whale would go up and down 7 times before a deep dive, and thus the wondrous showing of its tail. The second time we encountered two whales, might be the same two we saw earlier, I counted the whale's up and down, and indeed they dived after 7 times! and I got a really good picture of the whale tail. As many of us were obsessed with taking a perfect whale picture, not really looking at the whales with our eyes, the third time we encountered whales, the naturalist challenged us: "I recommend you to put down your cameras, just enjoy the spectacular whales with your own eyes!" I followed her suggestion. A whale swam a short distance from our boat, its dorsal fin and black back went up and down, up and down, then a big bent of its lower body, a really big curve, the whale tail went up, facing me, (or rather I looked straight at it), a big splash!!

The excitement of discovery, the anxiousness of anticipation, the thrill of unexpected! Those are what made the whale watching at Alaska sea a great experience.

Travel note: a high power binocular can really help one to see fine features of wild life, far or near. To take good pictures of wild life, especially in distance, one should have some more advanced cameras. During our Yellowstone national park trip in 2008, our "point and shot" Sony digital camera really could not capture wolves in distance well. This time, we purchased a 24x optical zoom Nikon advanced digital camera - it worked great. A digital SLR with high power lens would be better, but it is expensive and heavy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wilderness Sea Kayaking at Sitka

It was early morning August 5, 2009, the sun was still behind the glacier-covered mountains. Justin and I, however, were already on a yellow raft, leaving Sitka, speeding eastward to Camp Coogan Bay for our morning kayak wilderness adventure.

Camp Coogan bay is about 6 miles away from Sitka, and it is about 1.5 mile long. The kayak put in, where we would get into our kayak, is actually a float house located about half mile from the mouth of the bay, on a small side branch of the bay. As the raft was beginning to turn left to the kayak put in, I spotted a bald eagle perching on the top of a spruce on the right hand side shoreline. All the passengers on the raft were quite excited, it was a good start for our wilderness adventure.

This early morning kayak group was small, total of 7 people, Justin and I, plus a couple from Wisconsin and their 3 sons. All of us had kayak experience before, so there was not much need for kayak instruction. The kayaks are all tandem sea kayaks, long, narrow body kayak. The 7 kayakers plus a tour guide fitted into 4 kayaks just fine.

Following the lead of the guide, we paddled into the bay. Starting out, we sort of raced against each other a little bit, that was when it showed that I was the kayaker with formal training, our kayak moved straight forward, stopped quickly and turned smoothly. But wilderness kayaking is not about speed, it is about getting close to nature, getting intimate with wild life at water level at and near shore - a perspective not available from a big cruise or from hiking on land.

Paddling along the shoreline, looking up, we saw vegetation on the rocky shore, dark blue mussels on the fallen tree branches, looking down, the water was actually clear, we could clearly see several types of star fishes at the bottom of the water, the usual red star fish, and yellowish green star fishes. We picked up a star fish, held it in hand then put it back in water. After a while, the other family wanted to have a family picture in the kayaks, so we paddled near their kayak, and I used "draw" to get close and took their camera to take a picture of them - demonstrating my formal training one more time. They also took a picture of us kayaking. Afterwards, the other 3 kayaks moved ahead, and we fell back on purpose because we wanted to go slow to look for other wild life.

A few minutes later, I spotted a bald eagle again, it was on top of a tree in front of us, by the shore. We paddled forward gently, without telling the others, fearing that loud voice might startle the eagle. We paddled until we were right beneath the eagle, took a few pictures of the grand bird, and just sitting there watching it. Suddenly the eagle flapped its wings and flew down to the water level, about 50 feet away from us, grabbed a fish with its feet and flew into the woods. Wow! A first time for both Justin and me!! (It happened so quickly, we did not get a chance to take our cameras out of the cases)

Keeping our excitement in check, we paddled hard to catch up with the rest of the group. Reaching the end of the narrow bay, we turned around and paddled back on the other side of the shore. This side is not as lively or beautiful as the other side. We did see fish keep jumping out of water ahead of us, not sure if those were Salmon or not. The other 3 kayaks were near the middle of the bay, we, again, paddled toward the shoreline. As we neared the shore, Justin and I heard several tree branches cracking. We stopped paddling and waited anxiously. Sure enough, we saw a brown bear waddle down to the edge of the shoreline, seemingly about to catch a fish until I shouted “Bear!” to the rest of the group. The bear was startled and went back into thick bushes. I should have known better, but I felt guilty not telling the group last time about the eagle, I wanted to let the others to share our excitement of discovery! We paddled along the shoreline, and the bear was in and out of sight, moving in the direction we were moving. The guide finally saw the bear, he told us that the bear was about 2 to 3 year old, and that the bear ate plants and would not be likely to catch a fish. He asked us to hurry up as he did not want to be behind schedule - The next group was coming soon.

When we got out the kayak, we could still stand without problem despite over an hour kayaking. After apple cider and clam chowder provided by the outfitter, the next group arrived - a full raft, about 40 passengers! I felt so lucky that our group was small so that we had a quiet water, an environment close to its true nature.

Travel Note: 1) We have been kayaking around North Texas and Southern Oklahoma for a few years. This was our first sea kayaking. In fact this was not my first choice of sea kayaking. Initially we planned to have a sea kayaking around iceberg at the lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. That trip was replaced by a Mendenhall Glacier Helicopter flightseeing and walk about - another unforgettable excursion. 2) A dream of mine is to have a white water kayaking in a glacier river on my own. This will need significant improvement on my white water techniques.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Pre-Cruise Excursion at Vancouver

Our cruise ship, MS Ryndam would take us via inside passage from Vancouver, Canada to Seaward, Alaska, USA. We arrived by air at the beautiful port city Vancouver the day before Ryndam's departure from there. After we checked into our hotel, the kids were tired already so we scrapped our plan to tour downtown that evening. We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant 2 blocks away from the hotel, and went to sleep.

The next day was a sunny day. Our first stop was Vancouver Lookout - the tallest building in Vancouver, at 167 meters (~ 500feet), which provides excellent panorama view of the city. It is right at the shoreline. The ticket to the viewing platform is $14 for one adult and can be used for multiple entries for the same day. On the viewing platform, the whole city was under our feet. The sun was rising in the east. To the north, is the harbor, Canada Place (see insert) and the bay area. To the northwest, a green suspension bridge, lions gate bridge was in sight. The south is residential and commercial area, just like many big metropolitan areas in the states, the buildings are just packed against each other. We saw several buildings having trees or plants on their rooftops - a recent National Geographic article highlighted such practice in New York and some European cities.

We walked to Canada Place afterwards to have a close up look of it and to check out the route for check in to the cruise ship. Canada Place, the sail like white architecture, which is claimed to be the most photographed landmark in Vancouver, is mesmerizing. We walked around it slowly, looked at it from different angles in different backgrounds - it fits in every background, be it the blue sky, the bay, the north shore mountains across water or the downtown skyscrapers. We lingered there a bit too long and had to rush to parking lot to avoid an expired parking permit.
A short drive from Canada Place, we arrived at Stanley Park, an urban oasis. There is a loop road encircle the park, as well as a separate biking/hiking trail. The entrance to the park is free, however parking is $2 per hour, max $8 per day. Driving along the one way shoreline loop, we had a perfect view of downtown skyscrapers, the white Canada Place and tall Vancouver lookout prominently in the picture.

Travel tip: Vancouver parking is expensive, parking time is checked by parking patrol frequently and fine is heavy if you are over limit. So either purchase extra time or don't go over your purchased parking time.

After a short stop at the totem pole area, we went to a beach at north side of the park. The sky was blue with white clouds, the sand was fine, the sun was warm, the water was cold and clear. This record hot day at Vancouver, 90F, was a beautifully pleasant day for us -Texans. My two boys took off their sneakers, walked in water, searched small shells on the beach, looked at Canadian goose, took some pictures and then went to dry their feet in hot sands. After a while, they went back to water ...... seemingly doing nothing they enjoyed the beach . Afterwards, we went to a cafe. Before having ice cream and lunch, we took a short hike to Lions Gate Bridge, which has sidewalks for bikes and pedestrians, and walked to the first suspension tower to enjoy the unique vista it provided.

We left Stanley park right after lunch, around 1pm, for Canada Place. I dropped the luggage and the rest of the family at the pier and went on to return the rental car. It was good that we gave ourselves plenty of time since the two block away rental drop-off can only be reached through a long drive around and traffic was extremely heavy. Fortunately luggage was handled by the Cruise, custom and check-in was smooth. By 5pm, MS Ryndam left Canada Place, sailed toward sea. Our journey to Alaska had begun.

Travel tip: Many rental car companies allow customers to pick up cars at airport and return them near harbor. Renting a car is much cheaper than taking taxi.

Travel tip: it is best to have two days at Vancouver. Then one can have plenty of time to vist the "natural wonder of Vancouver - Cpilano Suspension Bridge" in addition to downtown area.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Destination Alaska - preparation for the trip of a life time

The Glaciers, Wilderness at Denali, Salmon spawning, Northern Aura ......Every time I heard about Alaska, I was tingled a bit ....... The urge to visit Alaska increased a little. Then at the end of 2007, I read an article in US News and World Report about 100 places to visit in the new year. The article suggested readers to go to Alaska to see glaciers before they disappear. That's when we started seriously thinking about visit Alaska.

Alaska is so far away, there are so many possible places to visit, so many wilderness to explore and the travel expense could be much higher than that for a lower 48 state travel. Many people considered the trip to Alaska - a trip of a life time. As we usually do on any big trip, we started our planning with research on Alaska, talking to colleagues and friends who have been to Alaska, check national park service website, search cruise lines websites etc. A thought about travelling like we usually do at continental United States - i.e. fly to destination, rent a car, stay in hotel or camping, was shot down. Because most glaciers are not accessible by car, lodging at hot spots such as Denali is usually booked a year ahead of time. For the same reason, we also ruled out cruise and then travel on rental car on land. (Note: Some people do travel on their own by flying to Alaska and renting a RV - we will do this if we visit Alaska again)

Expectations were so high, expense were potentially tremendous, to maximize our experience, we decided to take a cruise and cruisetour with a cruise line to cover both tours at sea and on land. Once the decision was made, we started shopping around for a deal on cruise in November 2008. We eventually decided on a '7 day cruise and 2 day Denali' with Holland America Line making reservation and deposit in January 2009 for an end of July cruise. Reservation could be cancelled by end of May for our case. Early reservation helped shopping for good deal on airfare - we would embark our cruise at Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately a discounted airfare is not refundable.

Cruise with children

We heard a lot people saying cruise was not good for kids - they were easily bored. It would be good to go with other families which have kids of similar age... We actively recruited other families but in the end we went by ourselves. We did a few things specifically to counter this potential issue. Early on, we had them involved in excursion planning - let them read guide books and make their suggestions, so at the time of cruise they had something to look forward to. The other thing, which I believe was important, was to let children to have their own digital cameras on the trip if the children are old enough, say 7 years or older. In this way, when the children see something beautiful, they observe more just to take a good picture if nothing else, and gradually they appreciate what nature brings to them more. We also allow children to bring one book and one game each just in case nothing on board interests them sometime. It is essential to not let them to bring a lot of books or games - they could be absorbed in the books or games just as at home and beat the purpose of going on vacation. An intangible about cruise with children is not to dictate or suggest them what to do all the time, let them make some choices, on board in particular.

Personalized Travel Plan

We prepare an detailed plan for each trip we take. We are outdoor type - state parks, national parks are our favorite destinations. Even though the cruise and cruisetoure is a guided tour, one still needs to personalize the itinerary - primarily for excursions and transit. Detailed travel plan helps to maximize travel experience, prevent disappointments. When situation changes, detailed planning also helps travellers make proper decisions on changes. Here is our itinerary for our 12 day trip.

(color code - blue - activities taken as planned, red - added/changed activities, non highlighted activities were not taken)

Day 1, Fly into Vancouver, Canada - arrive in the afternoon
Vancouver Lookout, Canada Place, Stanley Park

Note: We were tired when we arrived at our hotel at Vancouver, we went straight to bed after dinner. The activities were postponed to next day.

Day 2, Embark cruise ship MS Ryndam around 3pm
Suspension bridge state park

Note: we wished we had stayed at Vancouver one more day so we could see the city more - especially visit the suspension bridge park.

Day 3, at sea

Day 4, Ketchican, arrive 7am, depart 3pm
Excursion Options – misty fjords wilderness cruise $$$
Eagle island sea kayak $$
Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary$$

Note: For this first port, we tried our luck to purchase excursions on shore - but the ones we were interested were sold out. After completed an hastily purchased excursion, we purchased the rest of excursions on board. Purchasing excursion on shore can be cheaper, $10-15 per person most of the time, but the risk is that popular tours could be sold out .

Day 5, Haines, arrive 10am, depart 11pm
Excursion Options – Eagle preserve float adventure $$
Eagle preserve wildlife river adventure $$
Glacier point wilderness safari $$$
Glacier fjords by bike $$ **

Day 6, Juneau, arrive 7am, depart 6pm

Excursion Options – Mendenhall glacier and whale quest $$
Historic gold panning adventure $
Douglas island sea kayaking $$
Glacier flightseeing by float plane $$$
Mendenhall glacier by helicopter and guided tour$$$

Day 7, Sitka, arrive 7am, depart 4pm
Excursion Option – Sitka bike and hike $$
Silver bay nature cruise and salmon hatchery $$
Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest $$
Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventures $$

Day 8, Hubbard Glacier, arrive 7am, depart 11am
stay on board - at sea

Day 9, Seaward, 6am, disembark
travel to Denali National Park by coach along scenic highway
Portage Lake and Glaciers ( included in the package)

Day 10, Denali National Park
Horseshoe Lake hiking
8 hours Tundra Wilderness Tour starting at 2pm
Note: we did not know the tour starting at 2pm and thus did not make any plan for the morning. We went to visitor's center to ask a ranger for suggestion - that was how we chose horse shoe lake trail. If we stay at Denali longer, we would have climbed Mt Healy - just to get the feeling of on top of the world as a non mountaineer.

Day 11, Denali National Park - leave for Anchorage by train
Double deck scenic train ride - to arrive Anchorage in the evening
Day 12, Anchorage
Morning: Tour downtown, souvenir shopping
Afternoon: Bike ride at Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Flight home - take off 9:30pm
Note: Our whole family enjoyed the trip tremendously. I will write more about our Alaska experience in this blog.