The Crippen visit Alaska (May, 2017)

We had decided to visit the Alaska coast and glaciers before global warming melted it all. Much of it is only accessible by either aircraft or boat, so a formal “cruise” seemed to be the best way to see it all in comfort. There are many of them registered in several countries; we chose the “Princess” line for no particular reason, and for the most part it worked well for us. I’m told that most other lines are similar and they all plod the same route.

I’ve already mentioned the nightmare of having to get into Canada through the monstrously huge port of Vancouver, standing for hours, then standing for hours again getting back into the USA to get on the ship. Then came the comical x-raying of all luggage entering the ship looking for any form of alcohol (they discard it).

Yes, no one can bring any alcohol aboard. They sell it to you at a tidy profit, along with any other form of liquid other than water and coffee or tea. Every can of coke, mixed drink, glass of wine, cup of hot chocolate must be individually signed off against your tab and it piles up quickly. I must say an extremely irritating nickel & dimeing for their profit margin.

Otherwise, the stateroom was quite comfortable and accommodating. Each has a private deck overlooking the water. A TV set with a pretty lousy array of programming. Internet access was satellite and expensive, 69 cents a minute and each minute trying to connect to the system was counted. I spent ten minutes waiting (and paying) before I figured out the system was too slow to work.

The ship was a huge, Leviathan-like beast that cruised along about 16 knots or so but was big enough that seasickness wasn’t an issue. All the logistics of moving about the ship were flawless. No standing in line anywhere. There were multiple restaurants of all types, the food was excellent and there was a lot of it. All kinds of things, art shows, live entertainment, lectures by experts in various things, exhibits. There was plenty of room on various decks to lounge around. The staff were all very kind and accommodating.

First stop was Ketchikan, Alaska where we had arranged a seaplane flight up into the rain forest fiords. This was an interesting trip but the pilot was particularly interesting. The woman bush pilot that owned and flew the plane originally came from Nebraska to visit and she stayed. She started out with a light Cessna 172 carrying people around, then graduated to a more powerful 182 then finally she ended up with an old but venerable 1959 de Havilland Beaver, the classic work horse of Alaskan bush pilots.

This beast has a rotary piston engine, can take off and land in short distances and carry a lot of weight (see photo in my youtube presentation at the end). We had a great flight into the wild and I got some good photos. No way to see any of this except by air. No roads at all.

This gal exemplifies “fiercely independent” doing it all her way all the way. She’s in her 50s now, flying since she was 16 years old. But she’s worried about her future. This (and most of the other) aircraft use 100-octane low-lead aviation gasoline, which is expensive. The maker of that fuel isn’t making enough profit and so they’re threatening to quit making it, which will bring most of these kinds of aircraft to a halt.

Also, 9 pistons in a rotary fashion move the unique crankshaft of this engine and it needs to be re-built every so often as there are a lot of stresses on it. These planes are getting old and are disappearing as they age. The numbers of serviceable crankshafts are slowly disappearing and no new ones are being made. This aircraft could die on the vine in time. They’re already expensive to maintain, around US$100,000 a year for an aircraft that costs half a million dollars to buy To convert to a turbine engine probably a million $.

Speaking of aircraft in Alaska, only about 10% of the flying pilots have a “real” pilot’s license. There are a lot of pilots. 90% of the state is wilderness only approachable by air. There are no four-lane interstates in Alaska and few roads. Driving into any of the airports, there are hundreds of small aircraft, many on pontoons that can cost US$10,000 for a set. One of the favorites is the venerable Cessna “Super-cub” an extremely light plane that can take off and land in very small fields. When fitted with oversized super-fat tires, it can take off and land virtually anywhere in the bush. Cost US$4000 per tire. Slots for pontoon craft at one of the connecting lakes near Juneau are a 15 year wait to get one, sort of like Pittsburgh Steelers season seats.

In Juneau we boarded a helicopter to go out and view one of the big glaciers, then actually land on it and walk around with a lecture for about 30 minutes. It was a fascinating experience and none of this could have been seen by any other than air transportation. Photos later.

Ultimately the ship entered a large fiord where at the end of it several glaciers emptied into the water. It was deep water so the entire ship turned 360 degrees twice, affording spectacular views of the glaciers from any spot on the ship. The weather was perfect, cool, clear and blue sky.

The glaciers were stunning, but in the middle of the pack lay one particularly large glacier that didn’t look like one. It was pointed out as a glacier “in trouble” as it wasn’t moving. Normally they advance in the winter and recede in the summer. This one receded and then just stopped like a dying star. Just a flat line of rocks. Maybe the fate of all of them eventually as global warming takes its course.

So, if any of you are thinking of taking this trip, here are the pros and cons:

Pro: The trip is not terribly expensive as 6-day full service tourist trips go. The logistics of the trip are well thought out and very smooth. I think probably cheaper than Disney World with no standing in line, a deal breaker for Disney. The accommodations are very nice and roomy, the food is excellent, there’s a lot to do and see on the ship, seasickness is rare and the sights are spectacular. The logistics of coming and going in ports are flawless.

There are lots of side trips at each port, mostly air trips that we enjoyed. You can also go out with a musher on a dog sled trip and do some hiking, small boating and similar athletic things in the area. The cities ported are amenable to “walking around” and some of the local handcrafts are excellent quality and real art, not cheap tourist junk. Food is good on shore. Photographic opportunities are excellent.

Cons: Flying from Pittsburgh to Vancouver is a long trip. Getting into Vancouver, through Canadian customs, then back through USA customs just to board the ship is a terrible, exhausting trial. I guess technically that’s how it needs to be done. Once on the ship, the only nickel & dimeing is for drinks of any kind. Mainly for any kind of liquid other than water and coffee. Want a glass of wine at dinner or a glass of Coke? Sign here first. I found that extremely irritating. Otherwise passengers are quickly made comfortable.

The Anchorage International Airport is rudimentary by most standards, and for unclear reasons, most flights depart from 9 pm to 2 am daily. Since most ships dock at 8 am on the day of home departure, you’ll get to sit around somewhere all day and most of the evening before departing out on a red-eye. Quite irritating. This is an overbite trip but Delta doesn’t treat it like an intercontinental voyage so seats in first class go back about three inches. I can’t sleep that way so I completed a full book read all night long while my wife sawed logs next to me. I think women can sleep anywhere.

Everything considered, I definitely do recommend this trip as the benefits outweighed the detriments. The sightseeing possibilities are diverse and always interesting (not cheap but affordable). Very much OK for kids to enjoy. I can honestly give this trip 3 of 5 spinning ships. I’d give it 3.5 but the extra half-ship would sink. Probably a once in a lifetime for most. See it before it all melts, I think. I would take this trip before going to Disney World in a heartbeat.

Here are some of my photos I’ve made into youtube. It’s high resolution so you can watch full screen:

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