Editor’s Note: Sherri Fries is an i Love Dogs Ambassador who has agreed to share with our readers her family’s summer adventure traveling from Virginia to the Northwest. Previous posts took us through Canada to Fairbanks, where she competed with border collie teammates Cleo and Wiki Wiki in AKC agility trials, and then on to the Kenai Peninsula, the Katmai National Park, and Valdez . After touring the Alaskan gold country and Juneau, she now tells us about their amazing ferry boat ride to Ketchican.
Thar She Blows – Juneau to Ketchican
The wonderful nature experiences continue, this time on the ferry from Juneau to Ketchican. We saw at least 50 frisky humpback whales on the journey. They were breaching, tail waving, and slapping pectoral fins on the water. Humpbacks were bubble feeding – blowing bubbles as a group to force fish into a ball, then scooping them up in their very large mouths. Our favorite whale moment came when a huge humpback launched out of the water with it’s mouth open next to the ship. It closed it’s jaws as it re-entered the water to filter out krill and fish through it’s baleen. It was amazing.
We also saw orcas, Dall porpoises hunting, huge pieces of floating kelp, remote fishing boats, massive glaciers, fjords, beautiful mountains, seals on buoys, and salmon jumping out of the water. For a ferry ride it was the best animal and whale watching trip ever.
Before leaving Juneau we took a day tour to the two arms of the Tracy Fjord Glacier. It’s about five hours from Juneau by boat. The north arm had been calving before we arrived. The boat parked about ¼ mile from the glacier’s face. In front of us was a sea of floating ice with harbor seals hauled out on top of some ice chunks. A small harbor porpoise was swimming around, too.
The glacier is part of the Juneau Ice Field that extends from Skagway to Juneau. There are more than 30 glaciers coming down from the field. Only one glacier is growing. The glaicers are white on top, and blue on the bottom. The color comes from the amount of light that can or can’t penetrate the ice. As the snow compacts down and becomes more dense it forms a thick ice matrix. As sunlight passes through all shades from the color spectrum except blue are absorbed. The cloudier the day the bluer the ice as it’s the only color that escapes. Even iceburgs can be quite blue and glowing.
The boat went to the other end of the Tracy Arm glacier, and that’s where the action was. Huge sections of ice, some hundreds of feet long, cracked and thundered into the bay. The massive chunks sent out waves that bounced off the rock walls and the boat. And we saw a shooter. The glacier extends into the water so ice breaks off from underneath, too. Huge sections of blue ice shot up through the water, rolling over and cracking. As the boat floats among the ice you hear crackles, pops and sizzling coming from the icebergs, and crunches as the pieces hit together.
The trip is quite scenic in this section of the Tongass National Forest - the largest forest in the U.S. There are massive u-shaped glacial valleys, deep fjords, long waterfalls, bald eagles, floats of hundreds of pigeon guillemonts, and humpbacks. The high rock walls are scratched and scarred from glaciers that once ground along them. Thick forests of Sitka spruce reach down to the water.
We returned to Mendenhall Glacier to check out the bears and red rotting coho salmon. There was more of both. Two two-year-old black bears were up in a tree playing with each other. They’d climb up and down the branches, biting and swiping at each other. They’d stop to rest and pant, then start up again. This went on for about 45 minutes. When the branches started breaking more and more they came down, crossed in front of the tourists, and were chased off the boardwalk by the ranger. We saw another bear sleeping up in a tree’s branches. We stopped in the car to see a beaver dam. As we looked out a bear walked out below the dam, walked through the stream right next to the car, then went back into the woods.
In Juneau’s Gold Creek we tried striking it rich. This was the site of Juneau’s wealth. Gold was blasted and smashed out of the rock in the early 1900s. Mining ended years ago but people still pan the stream. We actually found some flakes of gold, but drat – not enough to pay for the trip.
Friday night in Juneau we boarded the MS Taku, part of the Alaska Marine Highway system. Like all the ships in the system the Taku is named after a glacier. The Taku took the tea and sugar run down the inside passage making a number of stops to pick up passengers and cargo – trucks filled with fish. It also transported smaller boats that are too small to navigate long stretches of the channels. The Marine Highway ships stick to the inland water routes where the ride is smoother, rather than travel along the much rougher open ocean. At 2 a.m. we arrived in Sitka, which has a rich Russian history. The dogs got to take a potty break outside. We didn’t go too far away from the harbor which was good. One camper who boarded here said there were a number of bears in the nearby campground due to the salmon run. No bears for us, but the tide was low revealing large red-purple sea stars on the rocks.
Saturday the ship navigated past cloudy snow-capped mountains, fjords, little Sitka spruce covered islands, and a few scattered fishing boats. We passed loads of whales on the segment to Kake. Next to the Kake harbor a bald eagle was caring for its chicks in a huge nest in a Sitka pine. Eagles tends to reuse nests every year, leading to some massive nests. An immature bald eagle sat in the branches above. The dogs and I walked along the road, and I picked Thimbleberries. They’re similar to raspberries but with more seeds. An ermine ran along the rocky beach on our way back.
Saturday afternoon the ship stopped in Petersburg, a town with a Norwegian history and lots of fishing. From here the Taku had to navigate the narrow Wrangell Narrows. It’s quite a site. The passage is very narrow and runs for some 20 miles. A lookout is posted on the bow as the ship weaves back and forth between channel markers. When the tide’s low rock reefs are quite visible. It was like a green and red ski racing course. At five o’clock Sunday morning the Taku pulled into Ketchican, yet another beautiful community surrounded by mountains and trees.