The trip was planned in Barnes Hospital last summer. As I lay in bed, snatched from the jaws of the malachamovess, I looked at Carol the Haggard and said, "I've put you through hell. What would you like? Anything you want." Instantly, she said, "Alaska." She had been noodging to go to Alaska for years, but I had insisted that we were young and vibrant and active, and that an Alaska cruise is for when you are 90, and they roll you out onto the deck in your wheelchair, and say, "Look!! A glacier!!" And you say, "Grgaaghhhhhhh," and motion towards the dining room with your cane.
The trip we chose was through the Harvard Musuem of Comparative Zoology, run by Special Expeditions, owned by Lars-Olaf Lindblad, the Swedish explorer and meatball maker. We flew to Seattle on Frequent Fliers, and changed planes for Juneau. Juneau is the capital of Alaska, the largest city in the United States in terms of square miles, with a population of about 8,000. You can only get to Juneau by plane or boat--there are no roads in. The architecture looks sort of like a frontier town movie set or perhaps like Athol, Massachusetts. The food sucks. It has the world's most beautiful K-Mart that looks out at a snow-covered mountain. We met the group we were to travel with, for the most part lovely people, bright and interesting. Out of 60 people, only 2 or 3 were obnoxious. They took us to the Mendenhall Glacier, right in town, our first. A glacier is essesntially a frozen river of ice that moves slowly (inches/week) but inexorably down through mountain passes from a massive ice field on top down to the bay. A glacier is a wonder of the world. It is so huge. Craggy. You don't just see it. You experience it with all your senses. The ice is so dense it is a bright blue, not white. The closer you get to it, the colder the air gets. There is an eerie silence before it. Nobody speaks. Huge chunks of ice weighing tons "calve" off it as it nears the water, avalanching with a crack, then a roar of thunder, and then a huge splash. If your 200-foot boat is 200 yards away, you feel a substantial wake. Sometimes, the ice within the glacier crackles and pops. I dubbed these noises "glacier farts."
We went to a salmon egg farm, where they take one lucky stud salmon and squeeze his belly with all their might until he comes all over millions of eggs that are laid out on a screen. Amazingly, all the offspring look just like him. The next time you see a salmon laid out on the ice in the A&P, take a good look at its face. The stud salmon was probably his father. We ate a lot of salmon in Alaska--King salmon, Pink Salmon, Red Salmon, Coho Salmon, Copperhead Sockeye Salmon, Chub salmon. Also halibut. They use halibut like a junk fish for fish and chips.
Then to the airfield, where we got into a convoy of 4-6 seater Piper Cubs that flew us up to Skagway, a gold rush town that has been converted into a movie set with stores for tourists. Yuk. We did buy a rather elegant Russian lacquer box of Czar Sultan, made in Palekh, where the best boxes come from. Lots of Russian influence in Alaska, but few Russians. In Skagway, we went up a 20-mile railroad that climbed a mountain to where the gold was. It followed the prospectors' foot trail. Most of them died on the trail from starvation, cold, falls. The Jews stayed in town below, sold dry goods, and ran the brothels. The view from the old railroad cars was magnificent--vistas of mountains, ice fields, mountain goats.
We stayed at a lodge in Glacier Bay overnight, and got on the Sea Lion the next morning. The boat has 32 cabins, a dining room, and a lounge with a bar. Our cabin was tight, but adequate. There was no reason to stay in it, except to sleep. The food was surprisingly good. Good cheap wine,too, and Campari at the bar. There were lots of doctors on the trip: four psychiatrists, a cardiologist, an orthopedist, an internist, a dentist, and a family practicioner. What little leisure time there was (the sun rises at 3:30 AM and sets at 11:00 PM, and just being on deck is thrilling), I spent learning my music for the week at the Berkshire Choral Festival in August.
We saw bald eagles, abounding like robins. Brown bears. Black bears. Timber wolves. Mountain goats. Sea otters frolicking in large groups, playing like silly children. Orcas. Did you know there is more than one Orca the Killer Whale? And we saw many humpback whales feeding, sometimes within a few yards of the boat. They are big, their breath stinks, they frolic and flip, jump out of the water, make lots of noise. We love them. They are so cute. I attempted to make a harpoon out of a Swiss Army knife and a bamboo curtain rod, but the naturalists were upset.
We kept saying to each other how brilliant we were not to have taken
a large ocean liner cruise, and to have chosen this small and intimate
way. And then, while we were drifting before the Stewart Glacier, watching
and listening to it calve, a small cabin cruiser pulled up. On its front
deck was a steaming hot tub with two naked people in it, sipping champagne,
who had come to see the glacier. That was the way to go.
Hot tub boat Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay at sunset from ship
We ended up in Sitka, a Russian town. The eskimos, who are composed
of different tribes, came over the land bridge, when Asia and North America
were connected at the Aleutian Islands. The Russians then came over and
conquered the Tlingit (pronounced Klinkit) at the Battle of Sitka. There
are wonderful totem poles and costumes. There was a Russian church. Most
of those who attend are Aleut eskimos.
From Sitka, we flew to Seattle, where we spent a day. Seattle is a wonderful city, like San Francisco in its feel, but more scenic in vista, and with more rain. We had dinner with Ammi Borenstein and his girlfriend (looks like bride-to-be to me), Vivian Scheid. He is taking a job in outdoor gear design, just having finished school in this. They have a lovely house to live in, and clearly do well with each other. She is a lovely elementary school teacher. We were both struck by how self-aware Ammi has become, how new-age in the very best sense of the word, very much in touch with his feelings and accepting of himself and others.
We had two great dinners in Seattle, which abounds in great restaurants. It is also oyster heaven. We spent a morning in the Pike Street Market, one food vendor after the next selling fresh fish of all kinds, fresh vegetables and fruits. We ate a pound of Rainier cherries. And a poppy seed pastry from a Russian bakery, and Starbucks coffee, and a croissant, and a muffin, and samples of all kinds of fruits and sauces--all before 11 o'clock. We took a harbor cruise, and hung out in funky neighborhoods looking in funky boutique windows.
Then home. Last night, our 36th anniversary, we ate at Cafe Nuovo. I had made a reservation for a gondola ride (Providence now has an authentic Venetian gondola cruising its newly opened riverfront), but it rained, so we went tonight instead, sipping wine, eating bread and cheese, to the strains of "Mattinata" on the boom box in the bow.
This weekend, we are going up to the Berkshires for the wedding of Eric Putnoi and Debbie Polansky.
What a life we have.