Friday, June 25, 2004

Highlights from a holiday

apologies in advance: the photoblogging doesn't work with the iBook right now, so i'll have to post the accompanying pictures when i get back to sunny Singapore and a computer with a windows platform. -makes a face- now, on with the show:

Highlights from The Cruise:

The morning of Day One, while we’re sailing the Inside Passage toward Ketchikan in the Alaskan Panhandle, I wake up to find a nice rolling sea. Of course, the last time I was on a nice rolling sea, I was terribly seasick. This time was no exception. (Thankfully there was little pitching and absolutely no yawing –I think I would have totally lost it in that case) To make matters worse, Dad gave me some ginger pills –that tasted absolutely foul- instead of the dramamine I craved…and refused to give me the dramamine, so the first morning was fairly miserable. We sailed into the calmer waters of the Inside Passage that afternoon, however, and I finally found my sea legs. Yay! That, I am proud to say, was the only day I was really seasick on the entire cruise. (Of course, most of the time the sea was calm as a millpond, and no one in their right mind would be seasick, but let’s ignore that for now)


I know, I know, everyone thinks that my cousin joanne and I are crazy for going snorkelling in Alaska, even though it’s summer and the water’s really between fifty and sixty degrees –kind of like taking a really cold shower in the middle of summer in Chicago. Plus we were wearing really cool wetsuits with a quarter-inch insulating layer of water –felt really good when that cold water rushed into the suit, let me tell you. Getting into the wetsuits was a hell of a job –it’s like trying to put on a full-body glove made of leather without any kind of lubricant, and when you’re finally zipped into it you can’t breathe or bend any of your joints naturally. And you look kind of like a seal, which may be fairly scary if you know there’s a pod of orca swimming around the area you’re about to go snorkelling (for the first time!) in.

But I had plenty of other things to worry about, like remembering to breathe through the snorkel instead of my nose (yay for being a chorister; it isn’t as weird for us as it would be for people who normally breathe through their noses all the time), and not dunk the snorkel into the water; and managing my damn fins; and figuring out how to get my body to not be floating all the time – the wetsuit really does float you like a cork, and I regretted not picking up a weight belt, really, although it was my first time snorkelling.

Alaskan waters really are full of relatively colourful wildlife, like various types of starfish and fishes that attack you if you threaten their nests, and jellies everywhere (jellies scare the shit out of me, esp after one stung me in Bintan –mumblymumble years ago) and kelp and small darting colourful fish and sea slugs and sea cucumbers. No pictures, of course, because my camera isn’t waterproof. But my favourite moment was flipping over on my back and watching a bald eagle float overhead and land in a nearby tree, totally unconcerned about the presence of thirteen humans zooming around clumsily in the water right under its beak.


So it turns out that we are our captain’s maiden cruise as captain of his own ship, the Infinity, and this becomes apparent as we head up to Hubbard Glacier, which is a glacier that (unlike the many others we were to see later on) terminates in the sea. We sail serenely toward it, and at one pm, as promised, it becomes clearly visible off the bow of the ship. The captain continues to sail toward it as we speculate how close we are going to get and how powerful the zoom lens is going to have to be to see anything at all.

It turns out your zoom doesn’t have to be powerful at all. After about an hour and a half on the freezing deck of the ship, we are so close to the glacier the ship is surrounded by tiny chunks of mini-icebergs, and we can see the layers of ice and hear the glacier as the ship just sits, almost dead in the water, slowly doing a 360 turn so everyone can see. Watching the glacier calving is really awesome: a huge chunk of ice breaks off and slides into the water, preceded and followed by a flood of smaller ice chips, and smashes into the water throwing up a cloud of spray. Shortly after you see this from the ship, you hear it – a low rumble, like thunder, and then the splash. And tiny hissing and popping as the air trapped inside of the ice for hundreds of years begins to expand and escape. It was totally worth the two or three hours in the freezing cold. I have tons of pictures but they’re all on dad’s camera, so perhaps I’ll upload a couple in a few days.


The morning was spent driving up to the Mendenhall Glacier, which is within Juneau’s city limits, if you can believe it. I was sort of glacier-ed out at this point but it was still pretty cool to take a look at the valley, and touch some glacial ice (there’s a pretty picture of that below). The highlight of the day, however, was our whalewatching expedition: out onto the coastal waters in a zippy catamaran, designed for wildlife exploring, with binocs provided. We saw a bunch of harbour seals, and a bunch of sealions sunning themselves on some rocks (they look like huge sea slugs!) and a whole flock of bald eagles fishing. And then someone yelled ‘Whale!’ and there they were: a mother and a calf swimming just off our starboard side, blowing huge plumes of steam into the air. The calf couldn’t quite get its fluke into the air for that classic whale photo-op, but mommy obliged several times.

Then, as we were about to move off, the calf came back up to the surface and started playing around next to us, turning around in circles in the water and flipping upside down, as if pretending to breach without actually leaving the water. It was incredible.

It’s a pity we didn’t see any orca (we did, later on, but far far away from the Infinity. We saw them blowing) on this trip but hey, you gotta have a reason to come back right?

Sitka: Raptor Centre

Not much to say about Sitka except that our visit to the Raptor Centre was really cool. They work to rehab hurt and sick raptors –which are birds of prey- and return them to the wild. But not all the birds that come in can be returned to the wild: some lose their ability to fly, but have the right temperament to become teaching birds. They have some twenty-five such birds on their premises, ranging from the huge American Bald Eagle to tiny American Kestrels and even crows and robins. And tiny puffballs of owls. They’re so cute.

Bald eagles are really really cool, especially in the wild. Watching them fly around the mountaintops with their incredibly huge wings, and land precisely in treetops, and looking for that tell-tale white head and then finding not just one, but two or three, and immature birds to boot, is really awesome. Seeing them caged is really kind of sad, especially the ones that are hurt and will never fly or be released into the wild again, but it’s also kind of neat to be that close to a wild animal (because you can never really forget that the bald eagle is a wild bird, even if you think you have it under control). And if it means that more people learn about these great creatures and how their environment is threatened by our behaviour, then in the long run perhaps it will be better for them as a species.

Generally speaking the cruise was great. The service on board was excellent, and I doubt I will have the opportunity any time soon to have my every whim catered to (down to having olive oil and balasmic vinegar at the table just for me at every meal, so I didn’t have to have butter with my bread) and my room straightened up and clean towels and robes every day by a chambermaid who had a great sense of humour (she made a towelmonster to hold Paddy and Jo’s glasses).

Highlights from Canada

We drove from Calgary to Banff (which is in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies) immediately upon arrival in Calgary from Vancouver. The rental car was a huge white Ford Explorer and was basically brand new – if we weren’t the first people using it, we had to have been the second lot of people in it. The manual was still in its plastic wrapper, and there were still bits of plastic tape liberally strewn over the vehicle- it felt like we were riding around inside a big white polar bear. It was a ridiculous car. But roomy and comfortable, and more importantly, the only car likely to be able to carry all our bags and still have space for passengers!

We did a lot of sightseeing around Banff, and the edges of Jasper National Park, when we went to the Columbian Icefield. Highlights include a gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain in Banff, and walking on a glacier at the icefield. The gondola ride was terrifying, at least for me and my mother, since we don’t like heights, and riding in things that sway and run on cables up huge mountains and steep hillsides; but it was worth the terror on the way up for the view from the top, and the crazy animals running around up there (I don’t meant the people, for once), and getting to see a practical geography lesson –lots of weathering and erosion, exposed sedimentary rock, and lots of nice obvious folding and faulting going on, which made me happy. I took a bazillion ‘geography shots’ which would be of zero interest to anyone but a geographer.

Going onto a glacier was another really cool experience. We drove up to the Columbian Icefields, where there’s an Icefields Centre, and from the centre we got on an Ice Explorer, which is basically a bus pretending to be a monster truck. Wheels taller than my head! In this monster-bus, we trundled out onto the ice, and offloaded in the middle of a retreating glacier. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, so there was meltwater rushing around the surface where we were, everywhere: ice cold, perfectly clear fresh water. Jo and I tasted some, and then filled my nalgene with it – it was beautiful. If only water always tasted like that. (we wished we’d thought to bring the nine-litre container up with us so we could fill it)

Then disaster struck. We got back to the hotel after dinner to find Paddy missing from our room. The moose we’d bought earlier were there, waiting for us, but no Paddy. Jo and I tore the room apart looking for him, then the parentals came over and tore it apart again, but to no avail. Paddy was missing. I called Housekeeping; I called the front desk; I called the duty manager and screamed, in a panic. Nothing. I was convinced someone had stolen him, and was ready to work myself up into getting someone fired.

‘We might have sent him off with the linens, was he in the bedsheets?’ the duty manager asked. ‘Yes, he was in the bed,’ I replied. ‘Well, we send our linens to Calgary.’ The duty manager said. ‘I’ll call them in the morning and see if they have him, and if they do they’ll send him back and we’ll mail him to you.’

The next morning, we go to check out, and I ask the girl at the front desk about Paddy. ‘My teddybear might have been in the linens, and the duty manager said he would call and ask if they had him in Calgary. He’s a brown Paddington bear, with a red hat and a blue jacket’ She says ok, and then calls Housekeeping. ‘You don’t understand. We called last night, and Housekeeping doesn’t have him. He might be in Calgary with the linens.’ I say, ready to freak out and die right there. ‘Oh, they might have sent him back here to us. I’ll just ask Housekeeping.’ She then gets on the phone, and I hear the magic words: ‘Could you bring him right up please? I have the guest here in the lobby.’ And I practically shriek ‘They have him?’ and she nodded. Paddy had been to Calgary and back in the linen truck. Quite the adventure for my little bear.

Now I’m sitting around in Vancouver International Airport, waiting to check in for my longhaul flight back to Singapore. Which is at seven am. We arrived at the aiport just past seven pm tonight, which means by the time we leave for San Francisco in the morning I will have been in the airport just about twelve hours. I’ve had quite quite enough of YVR for a long time, thank you very much. But anyways, so here’s the long update that I promised, and the next time you hear from me will (probably) be once I’m back in my room in Singapore, barring many boring hours laid over in San Fran or HK and free wireless internet access. Ciao!


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