Cruising Alaska's Glacier Coast

Cruising Alaska We just finished a 7 day cruise with the family aboard the Princess Sapphire. This was my first "big ship" excursion. The thought of taking a jacket, tie, and dress shoes was disheartening. These items would take up valuable space that could be used by "essential" photo equipment. Hauling around 50 lbs of gear, a tripod, and laptop really doesn't leave a lot of room for extra clothing, much less more shoes. I guess I'll never travel like a normal person. I can't imagine having TWO pieces of luggage just to carry clothes and stuff.

We left Jacksonville on one of my favorite 6 AM flights. Boy how I hate getting up at 3:30 in the morning...maybe if I went to bed before 1 AM I wouldn't be so grumpy. We picked up my mom and had an uneventful flight to Memphis, then Seattle, and on to Vancouver where we met the kids who few in from New York and Boston. Vancouver is one of my favorite cities. It was great being back in Canada. People are friendly and seem to be happy with life, unlike walking around Boston or New York where people always seem to be yelling at each other.

Robson Street

Our hotel was the Blue Horizon on Robson St. Very nice accommodations. We had a corner room on the 23rd floor with a great view.

Day 1 - Heading north out of Vancouver

The next day we headed over to The Hudson Bay Company to pick up some souvenirs for the Winter Olympics. It will be crazy in Vancouver next year.  Then on to Canada Place to catch our ship. The whole embarkation process was impressive. A long line but very orderly and things kept moving. Reminded me of queuing up for Space Mountain at Disney. Checking in 3000 people is not an easy task but these guys have it figured out. Our "state room" was very nice, the ship being less than 5 years old. We had upgraded to a room with a balcony which I highly recommend.

Farewell Vancouver

So what are the expectations of a photographer going on a family cruise ship? To be honest, they were low. I mean really, you are out in the ocean in a huge boat moving at 20 knots, going shopping, and eating 24 hours a day. I came for the ride, to relax, eat, and enjoy some family time. I had no real strategy for shooting or adding to my body of work. I was in for a surprise.

Day 2 - The Inside Passage

Inside Passage

The weather in Vancouver was perfect, sunny and 70 degrees. As we headed north the clouds started to roll in. The weather report called for intermittent showers. Most of Southeast Alaska is within the boundaries of the Tongass National Forest, which is considered a rain forest, so what do you expect, Florida sunshine? Yes it did rain, mostly drizzle, with nice clouds and fog, and all those extra weather features that photographers love. We cruised all day as we made our way up the coast. From the balcony it was like watching the Discovery Channel live. There was a calm and peace to the passing water and coastline. Small inlets, groups of trees, rocks, and the absence of any evidence of man.

Day 3 - Ketchikan

4 Big Ones

Population 8000, Alaska's 5th largest city. Makes you realize how desolate this part of the country is. Without the cruise ships (I counted 4 big ships anchored) there would be almost nothing here. We had no planned excursions, so we just did a walkaround the city. I also for the first time felt the presence of the size of the ship. It is an enormous vessel, dwarfing everything around it. All of the docks and facilities are fairly new and built by the cruise lines. All of the big stores in the ports are owned by the cruise lines. Hmmm, makes you wonder about this. One thing is for sure, this is a BIG business and someone is making lots of money.

Lone Fisherman

The incredible scenery continued to unfold as we cruised to Juneau.

Day 4 - Juneau

Mendenhall Glacier

Alaska's capital. Population 31,000 (half of a football stadium). One Wal-mart, one McDonalds. Also home of the Mendenhall glacier, which we took an excursion to see. My very first glacier! Amazing. A living, breathing, river of ice.  The viewing areas were a good half mile from the glacier. We had only 1 hour to view. The helicopter tour was $400, so the bus tour will do for now.

Day 5 - Skagway

Skagway was the point of departure for those heading north to the Yukon Territory during the gold rush. A narrow gauge railway was built to haul people and supplies inland. We took a ride on the train, 20 miles uphill to the White Pass summit. The construction of the railway was an amazing feat of engineering through some amazing scenery. I hung out on the platform between cars, freezing, and loving every minute. I've never shot from a train before. Judging from the number of images I had to toss, it was clear that the speed, the bumps, and the lack of a tripod (r u kidding?) would offer some challenging shooting conditions.


Day 6 - Glacier Bay

Sentinel Peak

What's nice about this cruise itinerary is that you are gradually exposed to more amazing views. The scenery was really getting interesting, and the entry in Glacier Bay was nothing short of amazing. There is something special about seeing and experiencing things for the first time. The shipboard viewing was ideal. Maybe a smaller vessel would be better but I was doing just fine on my balcony, watching the views unfold. The ship was perfectly silent as it slipped through the water, delivering new visuals every minute. I brought 2 bodies, and it was convenient to just switch to wide angle and then telephoto. At one point I switched out my 24-70 for my 300. There was almost too much to digest.


Day 7 - Prince William Sound and College Fjord

Back in the day glaciers were named after colleges. So there are the Yale and Harvard glaciers, Barnard and Smith, etc. I'm sure the Native Americans had names for all of these things. Why do we insist on re-labeling everything once we have "discovered" them? It's arrogant and disrespectful. Western civilization has its way of putting its mark on things. As we cruised into the fjord there were at least 5 glaciers in view. The ship parks itself in the middle of all this and slowly rotates, offering everyone adequate time to view the sight. After 3 rotations we made our way out towards Anchorage.


Day 8 - Anchorage and the flight home

It's always sad to be packing your bag to head back to civilization. We disembarked at Whittier, and took a 6:30 AM bus ride to Anchorage where we toured around until our flights at 4:40 PM. Flew to Seattle, then the red-eye to Atlanta, then on to Jacksonville. It was a long day(s). Good to be home to 95 degree heat and 90% humidity!

Overall the cruise was wonderful. A great time with the family, ate way too much great food, and the service was excellent. My first exposure to the beauty of Alaska was perfect. We covered a lot of ground at a reasonable expense. Would I do another big cruise to Alaska...possibly if the family factor was involved. Cruises are nice because it brings everyone together, but allows each person to do their own thing. A great vacation model. If you want a Disney-esque Alaskan experience take a cruise, otherwise train for the Iditarod.

Click here to see more images in my Alaska Cruise gallery.