Aug. 1 was Super Sunday in Juneau, Alaska
They say that one’s first cruise is always the most memorable one, so the seven-day cruise we took last week to Alaska should stick with us for the rest of our lives.
When wife Susan decided to “un-retire” for the fifth time last month, we decided that instead of taking a vacation in the fall when the weather was much more bearable like we planned, we’d have to take one before school starts.
After scanning a few Web sites, she informed me that Holland America Cruise Lines had a deal that looked both good and reasonably priced. It was a seven-day cruise that started and concluded in Seattle.
So we decided to let our bags fly free and left a day early in hopes of maybe catching up with her ex-student Earl Thomas before we set sail. However, Earl was busy ironing out details on his contract with the Seattle Seahawks so he missed out on a free meal with us that Thursday night.
We heard that on Saturday Earl signed a $21.1 million, five-year contract with $12.32 guaranteed. We left Friday afternoon from the Port of Seattle on a cruise ship named the Zaandam, with some 1,500 other passengers and headed for Juneau, Alaska.
A day-and-a-half on the high seas was a new experience, but aboard a huge ship like the Zaandam made it feel as if one was in a huge luxury hotel that was floating.
We docked at Juneau late Sunday morning and went on our scheduled tour, “The Best of Juneau,” that included whale watching, a salmon bake and a land trip to the famous Mendenhall Glacier.
Our bus driver, who was quite the comic, emphasized that when Alaska became the 49th state, it automatically made Texas the second-largest state. “And if for some reason we split Alaska in half, Texas would go to No. 3,” he quipped.
He also pointed out something that we should have known from geography class but didn’t remember that Juneau is the second-largest city in area and the largest state capital in the United States, covering over 3,000 square miles and is an island. “There are only three ways to get to Juneau,” he pointed out, “by boat, by airplane or by birth canal.”
After about a 15-mile ride, we stopped at a dock and hopped on our whale-watching boat that accommodates more than 100 passengers. Luckily it wasn’t even half-filled, so everyone aboard had a good vantage-point.
Our first stop was on an island, a couple miles out for the salmon bake feast at the Orca Point Lodge that served freshly-caught Coho (Silver) salmon that was unbelievably delicious.
An hour later we were looking for signs of whales—usually the humpback—which are baleen whales that are nearly 50 feet long and weigh 35 tons (female) and 25 tons (male). The tour guide said that the Orca or “killer” whales are spotted on only about eight per cent of the whale-watching cruises.
The naturalist on board, 18-year old Iris Neary, who has spent her whole young life on the shores of the Gastineau Channel, said there were two kinds of Orca whales, the resident that lives year-round in the area and the transient that is searching for food while passing through the area.
Word came across the radio that Orcas have been spotted and we raced to the location and began looking for a huge dorsal fin. A large and a real small transient Orca surfaced and as we moved toward the action we also saw a lone Harbor seal swimming a long way from shore.
We remembered that seals are high up on the Orca’s food chain and within a minute there was a splash in the water and the seal was gone. But the seal surfaced away from the now three whales, but was quickly re-captured.
This went on for quite a while and Iris figured out that the two adult Orcas were teaching the young one how to hunt. Iris said neither her nor any of the other guides had ever seen an event like that.
However, Federal law prohibits boats from watching particular whales for more than 30 minutes in one area, and our time was up, but we all were treated to a spectacularly rare event.
So now the hunt was on for a humpback whale sighting and once again we were treated to a rare sight. Iris said that occasionally a group of humpbacks will feed together in what is called a gam.
Eleven humpbacks were counted in this gam and when a school of herring are spotted, one whale will swim under the school and blow huge bubbles that surround the school. Iris said that this was called “bubble-net feeding.”
The boat captain turned off the engines and lowered a sensitive microphone into the water. Humpbacks are very intelligent mammals and communicate with each other. On a given cue, the eerie sounds of the whales were heard, apparently communicating when they would surface together to catch the school of herring.
We weren’t sure exactly where this humpback banquet would take place when all of a sudden, within 30 feet from the boat the whales came out of the water with their gigantic mouths open and full of small herring. Again the guides said they had never seen an event like this so close to the boat.
Whale hunting nearly made the humpback extinct until International law prohibited the hunting of these mammals in the late 1960’s. They’ve made a slow, but steady comeback at a seven per cent annual rate of increase, but there still are only 5,000 to 10,000 in the world.
The final leg of our Juneau tour took us to the famous Mendenhall Glacier, which is visited annually by some 300,000 tourists. There was a distinct difference in the air temperature near the glacier, perhaps 15 degrees lower than the mild 65-70 degrees we enjoyed during the entire cruise.
There were two sightings near the glacier—one was Gloria Estafan and her family and the other was a momma bear feeding salmon to her three hungry cubs.
When the bus took us back to the Zaandam, our tour group realized that we had been treated to a real super Sunday in Juneau.
KWICKIES…While we were on vacation, the Houston Astros dumped the high salaries of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, neither of whom are doing beans for their new teams. Oswalt is still having problems getting offensive support from his Phillies’ teammates, while going into Sunday’s action, Berkman was 2-for-22 with the Yankees and was getting booed for injuring A-Rod with a line drive during batting practice last week.
The rapidly-shrinking fan base of Tiger Woods had to be disappointed in his finish of 30 strokes behind Hunter Mahan, last weekend’s Bridgestone Invitational winner. But the folks really bent out of shape after this tourney were those sports media buffs who have been figuring all the angles to move Phil Mickelson ahead of Tiger as the world’s No. 1 golfer. What these Figurin’ Filberts are forgetting is that Mickelson suffers from the “Sunday choke,” a day on which Lefty has blown numerous chances to win a PGA Tour event. His 78 on Sunday is a perfect example of what we mean.
Local high school football coaches are experimenting with players in different positions in hopes of finding the perfect combination that will work when live scrimmages begin this week. One move that makes a lot of sense is at Bridge City where Head Coach Cris Stump has switched all-district tailback Matt Menard to quarterback. That move should give opposing defensive coordinators fits, especially on option plays.
JUST BETWEEN US…Although we were several thousand miles from Orange, Texas on our cruise, we discovered what a small world we really live in. Anyone on board that was interested in playing bridge met in a specific location. My two opponents were from Louisville, Colo.–Doris Ostrander and Fran Allen. Doris grew up in Port Arthur and has an aunt in Orange—Annabelle Stringer. Last Wednesday we went to dinner and were asked to share our table. Four ladies joined us and when we told them we were from a small town east of Houston called Orange, all four squealed with excitement and said they were born and raised in Orange. This group was three sisters—Judy Cameron Mathis, Barbara Cameron McKenney and Betty McCloy who all graduated from Lutcher Stark High School, and Betty’s daughter Cynthia Hodge Schwartz, who is a 1989 LCM graduate. The third incident, we saw a young man wearing a Missouri Tigers sweatshirt. Susan said she graduated from Mizzou and the man said he was teaching math in Independence. Susan said her cousin’s daughter worked at the high school in Independence and the man said that Glenna Bult was his assistant principal.