All Aboard!

Whittier-Tunnel-01

My last post ended with the anticipation of the bus ride through the Whittier Tunnel, the only passageway between us and the Coral Princess. Like it or not, we had no choice but to go through it no matter how intimated we might feel. Sitting still as statues, the other passengers and I looked straight ahead throughout the entire two and one half miles. If anyone spoke at all, it was in whispered tones, but for the most part, we were quiet, our eyes straining for a glimpse of light at the end.

I almost laughed with relief when I finally saw the light.

shipinharbor

The bus emerged from the tunnel and took a curving road to the left. There she sat in the harbor, the Coral Princess. As the driver parked the bus, I looked to the mountains to my right and saw what appeared to be apartments. Later, the woman checked our passports told me that’s where most of the town’s residents resided. Most of the time, she said, that was about 200 people. Now, however, approximately 400 people lived there, many of whom would leave after the last tour of the season: ours.

The baggage handling was a snap and was efficiently taken care of by Princess employees. The passengers stood in line for about twenty minutes, and then we were out the door and walking up the gangplank. Once inside the ship, I noticed a man to our left taking pictures of all who came aboard, including us. We gave him tired smiles and then went in search of our room on the Baja Deck, Room 626.

Happy with our home for the next week, we went exploring and oohed and aahed every few minutes—er, seconds. There were several restaurants, a variety of stores, a casino, a theatre, a lounge, a bar, an outdoor movie screen on the top deck, hot tubs, a library, and plenty of other attractions. I knew right away that none of us would have occasion to say, “I’m bored.”

That evening, we had dinner in the Bayou Café, and our primary server was a delightful young woman from Macedonia. Pleasant and outgoing, her most frequent expression was an Italian one: “Mama Mia!” She and her two assistants made our first dining experience one to remember. Very attentive, they made certain everything was just right.

The menu was extensive, and although two of us ate salmon (after all, we were in Alaska), the others of our party sampled a variety of entrees. One of the men at our table enjoyed his shrimp cocktail so much that he ordered two. After all, he reasoned, we had paid for everything ahead of time. Not even the most disciplined among us could resist dessert. From tiramisu to shortbread and tarts to mousse, there was something delectable to suit even the pickiest of palates.

As we walked back to our cabins, we chatted about what the following day would bring. We knew we’d be at sea throughout the night, and much of our conversation revolved around the anticipation of that experience. About that time, we heard a loudspeaker reminding everyone to report to a “muster station” to learn what to do in case of an emergency.

The muster station experience brought reality home: You are traveling on a huge ship with hundreds of other people. Look around you! If something goes wrong, these are the people you’ll be sinking with!

Along the Chena

On the second day in Fairbanks, it was up at at ’em pretty early. Our bus driver, Benjamin, was outside waiting to take us to our first destination, a port a few miles away where we ‘d board a riverboat and cruise down the Chena River. It was cold for those of us with Southern blood, so Jeanita and I found it necessary to shop for some warm clothing in a gigantic gift shop. We each bought olive green vests with AK written on the front left. Call us Plain Janes; we didn’t want bears or moose emblazoned on our clothing–not that day, not yet.

The “All Aboard” summons came all too quickly, and we queued up to board the Coral Princess steamboat. Once on board, some of us climbed to the top deck for a better look at everything. It was chilly, yes, but some of the cold was assuaged by the free hot beverages and donuts served at the prow of the ship.

The scenery on both sides was breathtaking, and I was again reminded of how many ways there are to live our time on Earth. Some people live in high rise apartments and rarely see a single tree. Others live in dense rain forests and have never tasted a Coke or heard of a vest. Along the Chena, inhabitants live in all types of structures, some elaborate and others rustic and suited to the surrounding taiga forest, riverfront, and brutal winters. Anticipating tourist questions about the varying architectural styles, the captain remarked that as long as a house met code, the owners could build whatever style or shape of house they wanted.

We soaked it all in. There was so much to savor and absorb that I almost missed the demonstration of a small floatplane! While all was grand, There are three specific river memories that will stick with me: Susan Butcher’s husband training dogs, the scenic nature at the turnaround point, and the visit to a fishing village.

Remember Susan Butcher? She was an American dog musher, “noteworthy as the second woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1986, the second four-time winner in 1990, and the first to win four out of five sequential years.” (Wikipedia) Unfortunately, Susan died of breast cancer in 2006, but her husband, also a musher, continues to operate Trail Breaker Kennel along the Chena, and he treated the boat folks to comments and a demonstration of the dogs on a training run around the lake.

Not long after enjoying the energetic and noisy dogs, we reached a turnaround point  where the captain took a slow turn, allowing the passengers to take sone gorgeous shots. Although I took several, the deck was too crowded with avid photographers to capture as many views as I wanted.

On the return trip, the captain slowed down a few moments so that we could listen to a lecture and demonstration by a young Alaskan woman about catching and processing fish. A few minutes later, we disembarked at the Chena Fishing village and were privileged to see caribou, learn how to treat furs, and watch some huskies being “put through the paces.” It was a magical morning that ended all too soon but not before we had someone snap our photograph beside the Chena.

Back on the boat, we headed to the port for a hearty lunch and more shopping. Everyone gathered in a huge dining hall to savor beef stew, salad, bread, potatoes, and chocolate cake.the efficiency and quality of the entire experience was amazing!

Lunch behind us, we browsed through the gift shop, and my husband found a few treasures. Since ours was the last tour of the season, prices were reasonable.

With memories of a beautiful morning along the Chena and a fortifying lunch, we once again climbed aboard the tour bus, this time headed for gold. Stay tuned to learn of our gold panning experience and the treasures we brought home.