Archive for Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Beal: Cruise memorable but not likely to be repeated

September 16, 2008

Having been home from our vacation for several days, it seems like I ought to be able to put it behind me and get on with life, so to speak, but some impressions are strong enough that I don't seem to be able to ignore them.

In a sense the author of a column like this one is really just a passenger anyway. Some of the time I set out to write about a particular topic or issue, but most often it's just whatever comes to mind.

We returned from our trip somewhat road-weary, after driving almost 4,000 miles, but nevertheless refreshed. Several impressions remain:

The cruise to Alaska was great, but it was probably both our first and last trip of this nature. We agree that the experience of traveling on a large ship was a memorable one, but not necessarily one we'd want to repeat.

That mode of travel, it seems to me, enforces a sense of distance or remoteness. Traveling on a large ship, and then going on previously arranged shore excursions, seems to work against developing any sort of real intimacy with the land and the people you are visiting.

And, of course, some of the "demonstrations" were a little one-dimensional. On one of our three shore days, we booked a tour of a former salmon cannery. I think the young women who were our tour guides tried to present an honest picture of life there, but the fact remains that the salmon canneries of the northwest coast were some of the most exploitative enterprises in history, both in terms of their labor relations and in their effect on the environment and especially the salmon fishery.

But life is full of surprises, of course. As part of the tour of the cannery, they gave us one of the outstanding meals of the cruise, which is no small accomplishment given the cruise lines' well deserved reputation for gustatory quality and excess.

Two aspects of the cruise were outstanding. One day, the ship eased its considerable bulk into a fjord close to the face of a glacier. Another was the final day's cruise down the Inside Passage.

Some of the most interesting times occurred when we had the opportunity to observe the workaday life in some of the small ports we visited. We watched in fascination as two tugs nestled a huge raft of logs toward a saw mill at Prince Rupert, B.C. A parade of small boats tracked back and forth across the harbor on their way to various tasks.

Although the cruise provided the occasion for the trip, visits to certain attractions en route prompted us to drive rather than fly. I've already written about the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, both of which we found beautiful and fascinating.

We also stopped a couple of days at Yellowstone National Park, and there our experience was not so positive.

Yellowstone, America's first national park, is known for two things: its geothermal features and its wildlife. Situated in a volcanic caldera, Yellowstone is home to the greatest collection of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles on earth, and they were in evidence and, as always, fascinating.

Unfortunately, during the two days of our visit, the wildlife were somewhere else. Although Yellowstone is home to the largest collection of mammals grizzly and black bears, bison, elk, deer, moose, pronghorn antelope, wolves, etc. in the lower 48 states, it's a pretty big place, at 3,468 square miles, and only a small part of it is accessible by road, so seeing the critters is to some extent a matter of luck.

And, unfortunately, luck was not with us on this trip. In two days of fairly concentrated looking, we saw numerous bison, two deer and, through a spotting scope after dusk, a bear with a cub. No moose. No elk. No wolves. We did see a few pronghorn, but not in the park.

It's hard to explain the lack of wildlife. Nearly one-third of the park burned in the forest fires of 1988, but there was little damage to wildlife at the time and ample habitat exists today. I guess they were just over the next hill.

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