Northwest Passage 2010

So, I've finally arrived home. Was it worth it? Yes. I went on this journey to travel the Northwest Passage. Some of my fellow travellers grumbled about numbers of animals spotted, or the days at sea. To me, to have been one of the few to go through the Passage was my goal. Anything else was just a bonus. And there were so many bonuses!

I'm finishing off a photobook of the journey and I'll put the details here once the book is available.

NWCert

5 August

My flight to Heathrow was scheduled for 10.45pm, so I had a long day ahead. I did some laptop work in the hotel room before leaving my bags in the hotel storage room and heading out into Ottawa. I decided to only take my compact digital camera--I think it does me good to occasionally leave all the complex equipment behind and to travel light.

I headed off to the ByWard Market  and bumped into Jana and Marlys. We explored together, assisting Marlys in choosing some earrings. I bought a handcarved inukshuk from a local student gallery.

We headed off to the Parliament building to queue up for the Peace Tower. Jana and Marlys were worried about missing their plane, so they left and I went up--well, not alone, not with all those crowds! The views were great, including the hotel in which I'd spent the night.

I spent some time outside the building, admiring the patience of the Mountie and her horse as people had their photographs taken with them. The heat was climbing and as I didn't have any shorts I decided to take refuge in a cold beer. Gunther and I had great views of Parliament as we quenched our thirst.

I wandered down to the Rideau canal and locks. As I wandered down to the river I could see the clouds building in the distance. As I came back up again the heavens opened and rain drove everyone, including me, inside. In about twenty minutes it was over and we all emerged again. 

I made a return trip to ByWard Market, then wandered. Somehow I found myself outside the Cathedral. Unfortunately it was just past closing time, but I took some photos with a piece of modern art in the foreground. By this time I had decided that Ottawa is a very lovely city and I wish I had more time there!

A stop off at a bookshop to get something for the trip home, and I returned to the hotel. The Andrews and I took a taxi to the airport and checked in. So, at 10.45pm I left Canada and headed to Heathrow. 

Final photos are here.

4 August

An early rise, 6am, with our checked luggage to be outside our cabin by 6.30am. The hope had been to take us ashore to Resolute by Zodiacs. However the horizontal rain had turned into horizontal snow, and the temperature had plummeted to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. We were finally experiencing Arctic conditions.

So we would have to be taken ashore by helicopter, although our luggage would be taken first. As this promised to take awhile I had my breakfast and returned to bed. I wasn't quite hungover, but on the uncomfortable edge of such a condition. The nap (and some ibuprofen) moved me away from that edge.

So when the call came from my group to board the helicopter I finally put on cold weather gear. The helicopter was buffeted as we headed over Cornwallis Island. Snow dusted the hills and sea ice had been pushed up against the shore.

We were met by a pickup truck. I winced but said nothing (well, only a small prayer--who is the patron saint of cameras?) as my camera bag was put into the back. We jounced along the road to the airport. The airport had the obligatory dead and stuffed Polar bear (with the misleading caption stating that it had been 'captured') and of course we took turns photographing it. Norm came around with cheese sandwiches and the airport staff put on some (real! hurrah!) coffee for us.

The airplane arrived and the people who would be going over to the ship emerged. It was a shock to see unfamiliar faces! One man was wearing shorts, others had ripped jeans. The plane was cleaned, and then we got on board.

After a seven hour flight (with a stop for refueling) we landed in Ottawa. And into a heat wave. The day's high had reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit (so that explains the guy in the shorts!) and although it was evening we started to roast in our cold weather gear. But the transfer to the Fairmont Château Laurier was quick--the coach drove up to the plane. Soon we were in luxury and I felt I should have packed  smarter clothes! A quick snack and a couple of beers, then off to bed.

My room mate was Joan, as Linda had her cousins to stay. Photos are here.

3 August

In the late night the ship crashed through some thick sheets of ice. I quickly opened my cabin window to take some photos. 

We awoke to rain! I actually had to fully shut the window to my cabin and mop up water which had formed in the well beneath.

We had hoped to go ashore several times that day, both at Maxwell Bay and to see the graves at Beechey Island. The staff tried to go ashore at the former, but the waves were too high for the Zodiacs to operate safely. The winds had increased by the time we got to Beechey, and neither Zodiacs nor the helicopter could operate safely. So we went to the bridge to look at the gravesite and the ruins of the buildings left by those who went searching for Franklin. 

In the afternoon I had a shot of my favourite single malt whisky, Talisker, to celebrate the end of the voyage. Later that evening we had our Farewell Dinner. The captain and his officers were present for the pre-dinner drinks, and the meal ended with the entrance of the Baked Alaskan.

I went back to my room to pack and to sober up! A final sunset finished off the evening.

Photos from today are here.

2 August

Grey clouds had been building during our time at Fort Ross. We woke up this morning to grey fog and much cooler temperatures. 

A day's long sailing took us up to Lancaster Sound. We had hoped to land at Dundas Harbour on Devon Island, but the fog prevented us from even seeing land! But we celebrated the moment we reached the entrance (or the exit, depending upon your point of view) of the Northwest Passage. We had made it. 

As if on cue the fog rolled back to review land and a fogbow appeared. I had a photo taken of me on the flying bridge. 

After dinner the fog dispersed for an hour. We were treated to views of Devon Island and the glaciers which cover the top of the island. Then the fog rolled in again and we went inside to warm up. Our official certificates marking our successful transit of the Northwest Passage were awaiting us. I shall display the certificate with great pride. Our ship was the 137th to complete the passage.

Photos from today are here.

1 August

At midnight we turned north. After lunch we had the treat of going through the Bellot Strait. Few ships make the attempt as the waters become rather shallow part way through. Fulmars flew around the ship, Ringed seals saw us coming and hurried out of the way. And, wonder of wonders, two Narwhal appeared. My photograph was not worth keeping, but we did have a glimpse of the tusks before they disappeared. It seems sightings are very rare.

We anchored off Fort Ross, and old Hudson's Bay Company site, and went ashore. There was a halt in Zodiac operations when several ice floes blocked the gangway. Several Zodiacs were used to push the ice out of the way.

I opted out of the walks to have some quality tripod time. There was so much to photograph, and the light obliged by changing several times, that I could happily stayed much longer.

Yet another sunset kept me from going early to bed. We've had wonderful light for our journey. 

Photos from today are here.

31 July

A day of enforced ice breaking in Victoria Strait. It seems that the Canadian government is somewhat nervous about ships going through this area in case the ship gets stuck in the ice and then needs rescuing. We were asked to hold our position during the day and only continue north after midnight.

We had a further brief spotting of a Polar bear, but he hurried off as we watched. Gwen gave a talk about her family's life in the area in the 1940's. There were a number of photographs to illustrate her talk. Her father had wanted to convert to Christianity, but at the time he had two wives and was told that he would have to give one of them up. 'I can't give one up,' he replied, 'they are my responsibility.' After both of them had died he married Gwen's mother (who was around forty years younger than him) and at that point he converted.

In the afternoon we had helicopter flights to watch the ship break ice. I got a photo of my cabin window, third floor up and second from the left. Gunther is looking out. Yes, you can see him if the large file is blown up several hundred times!

At the evening recap the expedition staff seemed almost demob happy. Much bantering went on between them. 

Photos from today are here.

30 July

I was very tired today after that late night. It took four cups of coffee at breakfast to make me feel even slightly alive. 

We broke ice during the morning. The ship jolts and shudders, but it's not an uncomfortable experience. In fact, when at the briefing the leader said we'd be at anchor overnight and not continue until 6am 'to give you a break from all the crushing and bumping' many of us told her spontaneously that we enjoy the motions!

I took photos of further fogbows, but I think the one in the Beaufort Sea was better. The ice here is thicker, and a deeper blue.

In the afternoon we made helicopter flights to Felix Point on King William Island. It was around this area that searchers for Sir John Franklin found a cairn in which a note had been left by the expedition. We had the opportunity to listen to the history. I opted to go towards the beach for some serious tripod time. The island looked bleak as a place to live, but to visit it was fascinating. There were numerous fossils around, plus small clumps of flowers. I was very pleased to find some Arctic poppies. I spent a good 15 minutes trying to get the exposure right. When I got back to my computer, I found the first image was the best! Sometimes it happens like that.

I rode in the co-pilot's position on the return trip. The views are better but the photographic opportunities are worse, as you cannot open a window to stick out a camera lens. So most of the aerial photos were taken on the flight out.

Just before dinner we were introduced to Gwen. She's Inuit, and acts as an interpreter. She will be with us for the rest of the voyage and, I'm assuming, for the ones which follow on from this.

Dinner was an 'International Evening.' The dining room had been decorated with flags and we had a Russian starter, Spanish and French main courses, and a French desert. I went to bed early!

Photos are here.

29 July

Another shore landing on Victoria Island. Today we visited Ikaluktutiak/Cambridge Bay, a town with 1500 inhabitants. It was 'first come first served' for the Zodiacs, and I got on the first one out. Taxis met us at the shore, and we bounced on the dusty gravel roads to the town. We were dropped off at the Arctic Coast Visitor Center. They had leaflets with our ship's name and the date all ready for us. The leaflets described the morning's timetable and provided a suggested walking tour. 

I started the tour with a local guide. We visited the Anglican church, the gift store (which had crafts made locally and souvenirs made in China), and the local supermarket. We decided not to go into the KFC or Pizza Hut. (No McDonald's has yet arrived). People greeted us and seemed pleased to have visitors. It seems they only get two or three passing ships every year. 

After the supermarket (I found some mugs which did not have 'Made in England' printed on the bottom!) I went back to the Center. Whilst waiting for a taxi to take us to see the Maud I photographed Gunther sitting at the feet of a towering Polar bear. The woman inside the Center laughed and said it was one of the funniest things she'd seen for ages. I would have thought that every tourist would let her Dachshund pose by a Polar bear.

Another ride along a gravel road. The taxi dropped us off just before a bridge made of metal. It seems we were meant to be met by another vehicle on the other side, but as it wasn't there people decided to walk. 

I stopped by an Inukshuk. Just as I finished my photos a pickup truck turned up. So I rode in the back to the Maud and to the old Roman Catholic Church. There were some interesting looks on the faces of the walkers as we rode past!

I stopped by the gift shop before heading on to the 'cultural performance.' Two women did some throat singing, an elderly couple did a song and drum duet, and then young men showed us some Inuit games. It seems that the younger generation keep up these traditions--it gives them something to do during the Arctic winter.

I was on the first Zodiac back to the ship. The water was so calm that we could see the ship's reflection. As I was first off the Zodiac I was the first person to turn over my tag (red for off ship, white for on board). I took a photograph of the event. Cambridge Bay photos can be found here.

We headed off in the afternoon. We began to come into ice. The light was wonderful around midnight, so I was up taking photos. Then the call came--Polar bear. I hurried to the top of the ship as others got out of bed and hurried out in their pajamas and parkas. The bear came closer and closer, lifting his head to sniff the air and sticking out his tongue--hunting behaviour. As he crossed over the front of the (stationary) ship we began to lose the last of the light. I finally got to bed around 1am.

Sunset and Polar bear photos can be found here. The bear photos were taken at the furthest extent of my telephoto lens (400mm) but these have not been cropped.

28 July

We anchored overnight at Johansen Bay, Victoria Island. In the morning we went ashore by Zodiacs. Three different level of walks were on offer, a 'long' walk for those who wanted to really get some exercise, a 'medium' walk for those who wanted a stroll with photo opportunities, and a 'contemplative' time on the beach for those with mobility issues. I opted for the 'medium' walk. 

The staff take the bear threat very seriously. We were to keep together as a group, one guide at the front with a rifle, the other at the rear. The group concept didn't always work well, particularly when photographers find something of interest! And the tundra is interesting. I was fascinated by the willow trees, which are only a few inches above the ground. It is interesting walking on rather than through a forest.

We had a short break which gave me time for one image with tripod, filters, etc. Although there are a number of keen photographers on board I seem to be the only tripod/filter orientated one. I suppose there are arguments for either approach.

In the afternoon we had trips by helicopter. My group had been first for the Smoking Hills excursion, so we were last for this one. The idea was to get close to a herd of Musk oxen. Problem was that the animals kept moving on, away from people. By the time my group got to the viewing site it was hard to tell what was ox and what was a rock. The only hint was that the rock did not move a few inches from time to time. I focussed on more photographs of the area, including an interesting spider's web which David, the ornithologist, had found. So tripod and macro lens earned their place in the camera backpack that afternoon!

Then there was a long wait, over two hours, for the helicopter ride back to the ship. When the wind was up it was cold, when the wind died down the mosquitoes came. A no win solution. The helicopter gave us a bit of a flightseeing tour.

Photos from today are here.

27 July

Yes, another day at sea. Well, I suppose the trip was billed as 'The Northwest Passage' and it is a sea route. At least now we're seeing land from time to time. The good news is that the ice charts show that we should be getting into heavy ice in a couple of days. Hurrah!

We had interesting light in the evening. Mirages kept forming ahead, hills hanging upside down in the sky, cliffs which did not exist. And later on we were treated to a spectacular sunset. Photos here.

26 July

Another day at sea, so another series of lectures. I must admit that I skipped one of the afternoon ones. Later on we had an update as to our revised itinerary. We had lost a day in Anadyr and half a day when one passenger had to be evacuated. The intention is to maximise landings and helicopter flights through the islands, going just a bit past Resolute but not to the further flung places like Pond Inlet. Most people are resigned to the changes.

We also had a helicopter familiarisation for the Canadian one. Although the Russian helicopters are still on board these cannot be used in Canadian airspace (except in an emergency). 

In the evening we went on helicopter rides and Zodiac trips to look at the Smoking Hills in Franklin Bay. According to our lecturer the smoke arises from 'spontaneous combustion of bituminous shales.' The views were spectacular, even if a bit challenging to catch from such moving modes of transportation as helicopter and boat. The helicopter had small, open windows, and I took turns with the person on my side to stick out lenses. As for the boat, we did have a bit of a swell, particularly on the way back. 

The trips started at 7.30pm and didn't finish until 10pm. The things you can do in the land of the midnight sun!

Photos from today are to be found here.

25 July

Ice free, so a lie in. Bliss! I should perhaps mention that we've been putting our clocks forward by one hour every night for four nights in a row. We're trying to get back on Canadian time from Anadyr time, and the staff thought it was kinder to spread it out. Many of us are simply tired, and this makes staying awake in lectures a real challenge. Which is shame, as the lectures are very interesting. We have heard about the history of the Northwest Passage, as well as about the fauna and geology. I skipped today's lecture about the flora--I was simply lectured out!

We had our first shore landing today! After the Canadian immigration officials had finished with us (they were flown to the ship by helicopter and we presented ourselves to them in the lecture theatre) we went on Zodiacs to Herschel Island. The island, named by Sir John Franklin, was first inhabited about 1000 years ago. In the 18th century whalers used the island as their base for hunting bowhead whales. There are old buildings, a graveyard, and rangers who live on the island in the summer.

A grizzly bear had been spotted on the island. We had a good area over which we could freely wander, but we were asked not go beyond the boundaries established by the staff. I concentrated on photography rather than a walking tour. There are a number of keen photographers on board, which leads to interesting discussions.

We returned to the ship, and during a late lunch a fog rolled in. We had to delay our departure until the helicopter could take off to return the immigration officials. The rangers joined us for lunch, including a two month old baby who had his own lifejacket. 

In the evening we had an 'Arctic Quiz Night.' Many difficult questions, including ones about the staff. As usual some of the official answers were contested. My team came joint last! Never mind...

Photos from today are to be found here.

24 July

Another 5am rise for what passes for dawn in the Arctic. I stood in the cold at the bow, only to discover that I could take better photos leaning out from my cabin window. 

Mist settled over the ice, which meant that helicopter flights were cancelled. However the formation of a beautiful fogbow more than made up for it. Seems a triple formation is a rare sight.

The ship crunched her way through multi-year ice, ramming against the thicker pieces. Sometimes the shudders were quite dramatic, but we never got stuck.

We had more lectures in the afternoon. Although the staff kept a watch no more Polar bears were sighted. We also had our mandatory Zodiac briefing, which included many warnings about Polar bears. They might look sweet, but many of them would gladly add human to their lunch menu.

Photos from today are here.

23 July

It was good to move on from double Thursday to Friday. I got up at 5am as we were told we should be entering sea ice around that time. We had done so, and the dawn light was lovely across the ice. 

The first real excitement came before breakfast. We came across a large colony of walruses. The staff team estimated there must have been over a thousand. The ship stopped so that we could have breakfast and then return to admire them. We could hear and, when the wind shifted, smell them rather clearly. The ship steered a course around them so as not to disturb the animals. 

We had our mandatory helicopter briefing mid morning. This included handing in a waiver form so that none of us could sue the company should something go wrong. We were allowed to walk around the Russian helicopters and familiarise ourselves with them. It's company practice to ensure that everyone has a window seat, so less go up than the helicopters can actually carry.

Then--our first Polar bear! S/he (there was debate regarding the gender) was on the ice quite a distance away. We watched him/her pad along and swim between ice floes.

After lunch it was time for my first ever helicopter ride. We have to wear all our waterproof gear and a life jacket. It was rather exciting, and great to get photos from above of the ship breaking through ice.

Later we had another Polar bear sighting. This was a mother with two cubs, and the ship seemed to spook her. They took off at a run. 

Photos from today are found here.

22 July (second time)

I got my day back! We passed the International Date Line (and through the Bering Strait) during the night. So we had a second 22 July. Life on this ship is rather confusing.

It was another day of sea travel. We had lectures on the rocks of the Arctic, the first lecture from Andrew Lambert about Sir John Franklin, and one titled 'Everything you ever wanted to know about Icebreakers but were afraid to ask.' The sea became a bit more bumpy mid day, which led many people to skip lunch and take to their beds. I was fine, but I still had a long nap in the afternoon. 

We are told that tomorrow we will being going into sea ice. Hurrah! And I finally got my pair of waterproof boots. Photos from today are to be found here.

22 July (first time)

I got up at 6am and went to the lounge for coffee. It was then I realised that I would have to rough it on this journey--only powdered coffee was on offer!

It took a little while for me to realise that the same mountains kept swinging past the window. We were in a holding pattern due to a 'medical situation'. One woman, an 89 year old, was acting in a very confused manner so it seemed best to get her off the ship. A helicopter came from Provideniya to take her to the town, and hence on a plane to Nome.

We had a number of lectures to fill our day. These were introductions to the avian and mammalian life we could hope to see on our travels, plus an overview of the history of Arctic exploration. 

In the evening we had a drinks reception with the captain and crew (all Russian) of the ship. The drinks were free, and I enjoyed four glasses of an Argentine sparkling wine. One of my German friends kept insisting that sparkling wine is 'mostly air'. 

We were advised to put our clocks forward by an hour and that we would regain our lost day tomorrow. 

Photos from today and of the ship can be found here.

21 July

We got up at 5am to do the case dragging thing (my room was on the fourth floor, no lift) and the squashed into taxi (more like a van) thing again. The barge was waiting for us at the dock. During the crossing to the ship we were given a boiled egg, a salami sandwich, and a bottle of water to tide us over. The crossing would have only taken two hours except we were held by Russian immigration for nearly 90 minutes. 

We were so pleased to see the ship on the horizon! We were told to go to our cabins with our hand luggage and our large cases would be delivered later. I was hopeful that, as the trip was undersubscribed, I might end up in a double cabin rather than a twin. I really didn't fancy sleeping on the drop down bunk bed, but my two cabin mates were about thirty years older than me so I was certain I'd have to volunteer.

Well, more confusion. I was taken to my cabin by a member of staff. There were already two women inside, neither of whom I had expected, nor had they expected me. One was listed as being in the cabin with me, and the other had been upgraded to a cabin on her own. However, Christa had become rather attached to her cabin mate, and she asked if I would like to swap. Would I like to swap? To have a cabin of my own? Of course! I entered into my kingdom and hugged myself with joy. A cabin of my own!

We had three course lunch and then free time. My luggage arrived so I unpacked, took a shower, and washed some clothes in the sink. And worked on my photographs from the last few days. We had our ship briefing and a lifeboat drill. Dinner was again three course. I need to watch myself or I'm going to put on weight during this trip!

My dinner companions were the Lamberts. Andrew is the special guest on board. He has written a book about Franklin and the Northwest Passage. Andrew knows a lot about the Arctic region and is more than willing to share it. They treated me to a glass of wine in the bar afterwards. Today's photos can be found here.

20 July 

Suddenly during the flight we 'lost' a day. I keep wondering how/when/whether we regain it? 

Russian immigration was everything we'd been warned about. It took several hours for all of us, who already had obtained visas, to be processed. Then the day began to get really surreal.

The plan had been to have us all taken by Russian helicopter to the ship. This would have taken place from the airport. However the Russians had cancelled the helicopter contract at short notice. Quark Expeditions was obtaining a barge to take us from Anadyr to the ship, but it wouldn't arrive until the next morning. So we were to go into Anadyr for the night. I suddenly felt very smug that I'd obtained Russian Roubles before I left the UK.

We and our luggage were put into vans which took us down a gravel track to the river. There we watched Beluga whales and Harbour seals catching salmon. The ancient boat took us across the river to Anadyr. A bit of paper with the name of our hotel had to be shown to a taxi driver, who then drove us (with our luggage literally on top of us) to our hotel. Some of the party had the nice hotel. The rest of us were in hostel like accommodation, three to a room and the toilet down a corridor. There were some mutterings of complaints. 

I was worried about security so decided to continue to carry camera, lenses, laptop etc as we walked into the town. We visited a rather new and beautiful Orthodox church, built out of wood without using any nails. I used some of my roubles to purchase a hand painted icon at a price which was about a fifth of what I would have paid in mainland Europe. Whilst we were there the priest-monk appeared, and he took us on a quick tour of the church including the bell tower.

Later in the afternoon we were taken on a 'cultural experience.' And it was indeed an experience. It was at this point that I decided I'd slipped into an alternative universe. A group of people who looked and were dressed like natives (and one very blonde woman who looked very much out of place) performed music and dance routines which, we were told, were of the original people who had lived in these regions. There were also a couple of dramatic scenes. No interpretation was offered, not until near the end, so it was a bit difficult to know what was going on. And the lights on the stage kept changing from yellow, to red, to purple, to green, as if we were in some disco. 

Dinner was at a restaurant across the street from our hotel. We all had the same thing, a starter of a form of coleslaw, fried fish with mashed potato and pickles, and then a black coffee. I used some more roubles to buy a Russian beer, which tasted like a standard lager. 

The experience was creating great bonding. I was in a room with two woman who were not to be my cabin mates on the boat, which was rather confusing. (My cabin mates and I had identified each other, and as their first language is German it's a good thing I speak the language too!) We laughed a lot at the whole situation before going to bed--hoping desperately that this would be our only night in Anadyr. For photos click here.

19 July

We had an early start, up 6.30am to put our check in bags outside our hotel door and then go on to breakfast. I sat again with Terry and Linda, whom I had met the night before. We were already noting that there seemed to be less people on the trip than we'd expected. The expedition could take up to 112, but there seemed to be around 70. And some of them had mobility issues, which I had not been expecting for a trip of this type.

We were on a charter flight with, strangely enough, a company called Miami Air International. Normally there are no flights from Alaska to Russia. During the flight we crossed the International Date Line...

18 July

A bit of fun and games yesterday evening. The magnetic door lock to my room packed in, locking both me and my room mate out. It took three men nearly two hours to fix it. They managed to get us in, put in a new battery, but then resetting the code took much time and suppressed cursing. 

The weather changed overnight to very wet and grey. I took a shuttle bus to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Native Americans give dance demonstrations and storytelling, and I took one of the guided tours around the outdoor village area. Houses in the styles of the various tribes native to Alaska have been built, and guides inside explain what the lifestyle was like. For photos click here.

After looking at the exhibits in the museum I had a salmon lunch and caught the shuttle back to town. I collected my bags from the hostel and took the bus to the hotel which Quark Expeditions have booked us into for the night, the Millennium Hotel. Ironically wifi access, which I have enjoyed free of charge in my hostels, has cost me $9.95 for the night I'm here!

I'm in a room with someone who may or may not be my room mate on the ship--we have different cabin numbers on our paperwork. We've arranged with another person I bumped into to have dinner together at the hotel restaurant.

17 July

The first morning I didn't set my alarm clock. I woke up at 7am and wandered to the kitchen with a coffee bag (like a tea bag but contains ground coffee). I had a long talk with a man of mixed French-English origin who now lives in Montreal. We shared our liberal agreement on various matters, I admired photos of his boyfriend, and I listened to his denouncement of all organised religion. So it was a tricky moment, as we said our good-byes, when he decided to ask what I did for a living... I hope he forgives me for not telling him early on that I'm a priest! 

A sunny day, but a bit cool in the wind. I visited the Anchorage Market and Festival and really enjoyed it. There were plenty of stalls offering lovely handcrafted items and my wallet did come out several times. What I find amazing is how much fur is available to purchase in Anchorage. And knives. I talked to one young man on a stall who was amazed to hear that you can't legally carry knives in the UK. 'We wear them to school here,' he said. I also enjoyed a corn dog--I don't think I've had one for decades. 

I popped down to the railway station to browse in their gift shop. It is my habit, every holiday, to buy a mug and see if I can get it home in one piece. This time I've chosen a railway mug for my challenge. Just further along the road was the Ulu knife shop. If you've never heard of an ulu before, neither had I--click here to learn more. 

After all that wandering I was in need of a beer, so I went back to the Snow Goose Restaurant. This time I had the 'Braveheart Scottish Ale'-a lovely, richly flavoured beer. I sat outside on the deck and admired the view. 

A brief trip back to the market--at which point I was made an offer on a cedar wood flute and out came the wallet again. (The carved flute is based on a Navajo design and it sounds as lovely as it smells. Another packing challenge.) Than back to the hostel for a shower, dinner, and maybe I'll even do a little reading about Franklin and the Northwest Passage. 

For more photos from Anchorage, click here.

16 July

A relaxed morning. I finished processing the photos from yesterday, packed, and headed down to the harbour to catch the coach back to Anchorage. The brochure had promised plenty of photo stops. There were none (!) but I was happy enough to admire the scenery from the large windows. I had seen much of it by train a couple of days ago, and in much better weather.

The brochure had also promised a running commentary for the trip and, unfortunately, this was indeed delivered. The double act were nice enough people, full of enthusiasm for living in Alaska, but by the end of the three and a half hours I was glad to leave the coach! Did you know that when Alaskans visit the 'lower 48' they call it 'going outside?' That each Alaskan gets a cheque every year as a percentage of the profits from the oil revenue? We were also told in great detail how much hunting and fishing you are allowed to do depending on your income bracket.

I headed back to the Alaska Backpackers Inn, the same place I'd stayed a few nights ago. I was too early to check in, so my bags were placed into locked storage and I headed downtown. After investigating various shops I went to the Glacier Brewhouse  and had a lovely oatmeal stout with pork ribs. Photos from today can be seen here.

I checked in to the hostel, and headed up to my room. A very nice man was stunned when I entered the room. He encouraged me to seek a change to a woman only room, which I did, more for his sake than mine! 

15 July

I think my body clock has finally readjusted. A good night's sleep found me up and ready for my next adventure. Back in April I'd booked a boat trip into the Kenai Fjords called 'The Captain's Choice,' with Kenai Fjords Tours. This trip, according to the blurb, was designed for photographers and wildlife enthusiasts as the captain would decide where to go based on our priorities and the daily conditions.

I arrived an hour before the trip, as advised on the brochure, so I had plenty of time to stare glumly at the grey and foggy skies. Newspaper headlines spoke of the 'heatwave' of the day before. It seems 70 degrees Fahrenheit is very unusual!

There were sixteen of us, including a number of children. Most of the adults carried large cameras and even larger lenses, most of them Canon. I felt in good company!

'Okay,' the captain said to us, 'You want to puffins, whales, and glaciers. Am I right?' He was so right. And the trip fulfilled the requirements.

We started off well by watching a sea otter just outside the harbour. I'd only seen them in wildlife documentaries so it was fun to watch one in the flesh. Shortly thereafter we spent a hour in the company of two different orca pods. The captain does some research on the pods in his spare time and he could name the individuals we saw. One emerged right next to the boat. 

We came across a humpback whale which idled along the coast and refused to fluke. Puffins were beginning to emerge, both the horned and the tufted, plus various auklets and gulls. We admired sealions and saw seals in various locations.

The eeriest moment was going through a field of small ice fragments. A lot of birds were in the area, feeding on fish or resting on ice floats. The mist and the landscape were like an alien planet and very dramatic.

The Aialik Glacier obligingly calved whilst we hovered in the area. Then we went back along the coast, which no doubt on a clear day is spectacular. The fog meant we had to use our imaginations.

Near the end of our trip we met up with another humpback whale. This one fluked for us several times, and I was even in a good position for one of them. After nine hours on the boat we were back in Seward Harbour and I went back to the hostel to download all my photographs. To see photos from today, click here.

14 July

Didn't sleep well! I think the fact that I had to get to the train station by 5.45am kept me awake--in what little sleep I did have I dreamt about missing the train...

I gave up and got up at 4.30am, and although I tried to pack up as quietly as possible no doubt my room mates felt differently (the joys of youth hostel life!). As I left the building a taxi driver saw me, guessed I was going to the train station, and I was happy to pay $5.00 for the convenience and safety.

I had decided, back when I booked the train trip in April, to pay the extra for the Gold Star service. This meant that I was on an observation car, with plexi-glass ceiling and an outdoor viewing platform. I was in the second carriage which was half empty. This meant that we keen photographers (I had both cameras out, one with a wide angle lens and the other with the telephoto) had good opportunities.

The grey skies departed and we were treated to mountains glistening with glaciers and streams which were blue-grey with glacier run off. I did try to be polite and give others a chance when major sights, such as the mirror lakes, came up. One chap, noting my SLRs against his small digital camera, told me I should take precedence over him. 'Your equipment is much bigger than mine.' I responded, 'I never tell a man that his equipment is too small' to great laughter from the others around us. 

A highlight was a bald eagle being chased by a couple of terns. In the photograph you can see that the eagle has a chick in her talons. The terns gave up and she made it to her nest, which had a couple of chicks of her own. 

We pulled into Seward at 11.05am. A free bus took me to my hostel, and I was able to book in early and dump my bags. I wandered into the town, which is small and touristy and surrounded by mountains. I bought some souvenirs and postcards, and visited the SeaLife Center. The Centre has viewing areas which includes underwater tanks. I particularly enjoyed watching the puffins dive. To see photos from today, click here.

After a nice porter ale in a rather grubby bar I headed back to the hostel to update my journal and this website. I hope the good weather remains for my boat trip tomorrow.

13 July

Slept very well. I suppose a benefit of being up for more than 24 hours is that your body doesn't care what time it might be back home, all you want to do is to sleep! Maybe that's the trick to overcoming jet lag.

Vancouver Central Hostel offers a very nice free breakfast--hot drinks, juice, cereals, bread, and cakes so sugary you put on weight just looking at them. I made it back to the airport in good time. Check in was easy, but I had to go speak to an immigration official at the airport. I never seem to get through US border controls without a discussion. I stood for about ten minutes whilst the chap typed various things into the computer. He had picked up that I had reported a previous passport as lost. I don't know what he found to write about, but I wasn't about to challenge a person who could keep me from continuing my holiday!

There were great views of the mountains from the plane--until we got into Alaskan air space and clouds took over. I trudged through a wet Anchorage to get to the Alaska Backpackers Inn. A nice place with free wifi (seems to be getting standard). If you want to read about this hostel, click here

I ditched luggage and headed downtown. The Snow Goose Restaurant had great decor (lots of beer towels of English and Welsh beers) and I thoroughly enjoyed their oatmeal stout. I also enjoyed a meal of three sausages, bison, reindeer, and caribou. I was tempted to try another beer, but I have to catch an early train tomorrow to Seward.

12 July

I am very tired. I caught a coach at 1.20am from Cardiff to get to Heathrow for my 8.30am flight to Toronto--only to find that there was a four hour delay. This meant that I had to get on a later flight to Vancouver, so instead of arriving (local time) 3pm I made it at 8pm. I'm now checked into the youth hostel and feel much better after a shower and brushing my teeth. It's back to the airport tomorrow to fly out to Anchorage. I always find the air travel part of the holiday as something one must simply endure. Mind you, I did enjoy watching 'How to Tame Your Dragon' on the entertainment screen.

7 July

Okay, I think I'm finished with the packing. The check in bag weighs 38 pounds, just under the limit of 40 pounds for the charter flights. The camera backpack weighs 22 pounds (two camera bodies, four lenses, various filters). I also have a smaller bag for the laptop. I am slightly nervous about getting the two carry ons past check in. They are within the airline's published requirements, but so often it comes down to the person on the desk that morning.

Gunther, my travelling dachshund, is also ready. He now has a harness to wear when he ventures out on the deck of the ship. I'd hate to lose him over the side!

For more photos, click here.

3 July

So why the Northwest Passage? Why spend a good chunk of money on going somewhere cold for a summer holiday?

I blame it on the Mountie.

Some years ago I started watching the tv series 'Due South,' which followed the adventures of a Canadian Mountie in Chicago, USA. The final episode featured the actor, Paul Gross, talking about Franklin and singing the chorus of Stan Rogers' 'Northwest Passage.' (For more information about the tv show, click here.)

I have never heard of the Northwest Passage before watching this episode. The more I read about it, the more intrigued I became. Until finally I took the plunge and booked the trip last year. 

If you want to hear Stan Rogers sing 'Northwest Passage' click on the You Tube video. Here are the lyrics:

Chorus:
Oh, for just one time I would take the Northwest passage,
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea,
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage,
And make a Northwest passage to the sea.

Westward from the Davis Strait 'twas there 'twas said to lie,                                   The sea route to the Orient for which so many died,                                             Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered, broken bones,                                        And a long forgotten, lonely cairn of stones.

Three centuries thereafter I take passage overland,
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, where his 'sea of flowers' began,
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again,
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.

And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking West,
I think upon McKenzie, David Thompson and the rest,
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me,
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.

How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them I left a settled life, I threw it all away,
To seek the Northwest passage at the call of many men,
To find there but the road back home again.

1 July

The wall calendar has turned over to the month in which I leave on this epic journey. I have just about finished my packing, and am in despair how much cold weather clothes weigh. The joining instructions advise me that I should expect temperatures just above freezing, so thermals, gloves, hats, fleeces, and also sunscreen fill much of my case. Plus my tripod, which I have to entrust to the main hold as many airlines are twitchy about tripods in carry on luggage. 

I'm going with Quark Expeditions. The voyage is currently listed on their website, and you can see this by clicking here. If you want to download a pdf of the itinerary, please click here.

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