An Alaskan journey: Land ho!

Lunch, walk, nap, bath, writing his report of the Gloomy Knob success and his apology for running away took the rest of the day.  By nine p.m. the sun was setting and Protheroe was feeling fatigued and hungry.  He looked at the copy of the hotel restaurant menu in his room; an item caught his eye: “New England Clam Chowder with Alaskan wild seafood”.  His mouth was filled with the taste of clam chowder in Haymarket.  Twenty years ago.  A distant world – he had travelled there with one of his best friends, an old-fashioned road trip, with paper maps and dirty rest stops and greasy food and water out of coolers and taps, not bottles.  He felt old.  Or, worse: nostalgic.  Perfect, he thought.  With deliberate rush, he headed to the elevators and the restaurant; disappointment set in even before he sat down.

“I’ll have the chowder.”

“Don’t have any.  But we have seafood and vegetable soup.”

Great, he said to himself, old fish drowned in yesterday’s leftover minestrone

“Could I have a drink menu?”

“We, er, don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one?”

“There are more drinks than on our menu.”

“Well, why don’t you expand your menu?” was what he should have said.  Instead, he asked the waiter to list the drinks and ordered the first one.  The waiter looked somewhat dejected.  It was going to be a long flight back.


Overcast; the sea is grey; it’s in the teens. Celsius, but with the damp it feels Fahrenheit.  When we booked the cruise, I decided to have A New Experience each day we were on shore.  In Ketchikan, it was to be snorkelling.

The tour organiser meets us on the pier at 630 am; I have not had coffee, but ate a pain au chocolat and an egg muffin sandwich that, remarkably, tasted the same, that is to say, of nothing at all.

Swimming in cold water in a wetsuit is quite an experience; snorkelling in murky sub-Arctic waters is interesting, to say the least, though perhaps not to be repeated.  Not that I was cold – in fact, if anything, towards the end I was getting a bit hot in the wetsuit and occasionally had to flop around to get some cold water into the suit.  And not that the water and the fish were not as interesting as diving in Jamaica or snorkeling off the coast of Turkey – the star fish were really wonderful.  In fact, I saw and handled starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins, and photographed three different sorts of jelly fish (white, translucent and yellow smudges against a green background).

But …  the currents were strong and the kelp forests were quite dense; I have a horror of kelp and the currents made my underwater pictures into mostly green goo.  Nasty things, kelp; they look like witches under water.  NOT that I have anything against witches, mind.  It’s underwater plants pretending to be witches that gives me the willies. No wonder I panic each time I swim in there ….

Now, here’s a thought for a movie: Ketchikan Waiters, modelled on Stepford Wives.  There is an eerie cheeriness to the waiters.  They show up, smiling and introducing themselves, in regular intervals of 1’37″ – just long enough to allow you to get the beginnings of a thought or an anecdote out, but not long enough for you to have finished it.  Conversationus interrumptus, all night long, with one exception: when you really need something (water, wine, defibrillator, life vest).  The cruiseship waiters have a uniform and uncanny capacity not to catch your eye; in their ability to ignore you, they remind me of this line from Orlando: “Here was a man who turned into a woman and lived for four hundred years.  But because we were British, we pretended not to notice.”  And so did they.


Took the “Tramway” to the top of Mt. Roberts.  Actually, it’s a regular gondola/telecabine … but who am I to argue with the locals?  The conductor tells us helpfully that the Tram cost $17 million in 1996 or whatever to construct.  Why I need to know either number is besides me.  Yes, so I know Agatha Christie was earning 50 pounds a year in 1924, but those are relevant numbers; what am I supposed to do with the cost of an Alaskan Tram in 1996? (Now, here is a subject for an entire blog entry: numbers and figures and their relevance.  One of these days.)

The views of Gastineau Inlet are stunning; so are the weathered snowpatches at the top.

But the magnificent vistas are merely appetiser for what is coming in the afternoon: the Whales. And, you know, they don’t, the dear things, disappoint.

I have made a point of never going to an aquarium to see performing orcas or dolphins.  I find it demeaning to them and to myself.  And so far, I have avoided the temptation of going “whale watching”, mostly because I really did not want to be party to the disruption caused to their lives.  But … the interesting thing is that once we remove ourselves as a threat, the animals adjust to us.  Later in the day, we say a bear and her two cubs wandering around the throngs of people visiting Mendenhall Glacier – not only without a care in the world, but with positive security: the bears sometimes leave their cubs to be babysat by the prongs – they know that they (the cubs) are safe from male bears, who hate people more than they like cubflesh.  And so it is with the whales in the various inlets.  They have more or less become accustomed to the passage of the ships and the gawking tourists – a humpback and her calf came alongside the ship and practically waved at us.

And so long as we don’t actively harm them, the whales, much like the cattle in Denning’s cricket fields,* don’t seem to mind.

* “This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket.”

They might have got accustomed to us; I wonder if we will get accustomed to these magnificent creatures.  The first time a male orca’s fin comes out of the water; when you see humpbacks bubble-netting their prey and then feeding; when they turn with their flukes out of the water and head for the deep … we sat there in the water for two hours, madly taking pictures; and then again, when we came across other pods on the ship, we rushed to the railings and the prow, madly taking pictures; and then again, on the road to Anchorage, when we saw beluga playing in the inlet, we rushed to the bus windows, madly taking pictures … all along, recording the experience as a true experience of something unique, almost magical, certainly primal.

At dinner, my buddy orders “endive salad with field greens.”  A salad arrives with lots of iceberg lettuce and one or two wilted greens that might have, at some point in their life cycle, seen a field of some sort.  After a few wild gestures trying to get the attention of our waiter, a waiter, any waiter, anyone with a uniform, someone arrives.

“I ordered an the salad, which is supposed to be an endive salad.”

“That is the salad.”

“Yes, but the first ingredient on the menu is endives, not iceberg lettuce.”

Waiter takes the salad bowl, tosses it around with his fork and utters, “see there is an endive there.”

He then looks at my friend. “I will get you another one.”  Detective Protheroe is spared solving the Endive Salad Decapitation mystery.

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