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Why Catch-a-Crab in Ketchikan?

KETCHIKAN — This is the story of two plates. One before, and one after. What you’re seeing is what happens when four people are given the opportunity to eat as much Dungeness crab as they like.

All we know about the other two….er, gluttons…at the table is that they were from Colorado and their appetite for crab was the equal of ours. The crabs were the climax of what Princess Cruise Lines calls its Wilderness Exploration and Crab Feast, and if you’ve noticed that this is the second straight day of filling our bellies with seafood, then we know you’re paying attention

Are you noticing a trend?

We could have gone on the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour, but there didn’t see any eating involved, and we passed on the Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer because we heard someone say that “Misty Fjords” sounded like an old stripper, and Ketchikan does have its own bordello museum.

The “wilderness” part of our tour was okay, even though it fell on one of Ketchikan’s 260 rainy days of the year, because it’s a chance to see how “crabbers” do what “feasters” need. There are two crab pots filled every day, for tours like this, and everybody on the boat gets a chance to hold a crab without getting clawed. The tour guide, Amanda, was brave enough to wear one as a hat and one woman even performed the local policy of catch, kiss and release. However, lest anybody get too attached to these babies (especially the kisser), they’re not the ones that wind up on your plate after the boat docks.

Those babies are awesome.

Never before have we eaten crab with shells so soft you could break them with your hand. Never before have we been offered re-fills, even of hard-shelled crabs. Never before have we eaten so much crab, and we probably never will again.

On each end of the tour was a short bus ride on potholed streets from downtown Ketchikan, which these days is home to about 8,000 people. On each end of the tour was a 79-step walk to and from the dock where the boat and the lodge were, and even that didn’t make anybody…crabby.

Flight, Feast Fit for Surprise

JUNEAU — This is the capital of Alaska, although a lot of people here still wonder why, and it’s also where we committed to taking a float plane to a feast. But we must digress…

Having just disembarked from the Coral Princess, with tickets in hand for the flight-and-feast shore excursion, we began to wonder if we’d made a mistake. Everybody else in our group of 18 seemed to be going to some glacier, or to catch fish they couldn’t keep, or to get a ride on a dog sled in the snow. Up to this point, we’d thoroughly enjoyed every excursion we’d taken and, frankly, we thought maybe our luck had simply run out.

In cruise ports, there are always local vendors pitching trips to wherever. On the pier at Juneau, there was a long line of little booths that seemed to be joined at the corners. We decided to approach one of the vendors, explaining that we weren’t customers since we already had something booked.

“Where are you going?” asked Abe Tanha.

“The Taku Lodge Flight and Feast.”

“You’re gonna love it,” said Abe. “It was the first tour I ever went on when I came here five years ago. That spoiled it for me. Nothing else was ever that good.”

“Excellent.”

“You’re gonna fly over five glaciers…”

“This is sounding better.”

“…and when you get to the lodge there’s a guy with a 10-foot stick to keep the bears from getting closer than four or five feet from you.”

There was one other concern that Abe, a nice young guy even though he’s a Red Sox fan, wasn’t able to alleviate. One of us doesn’t swim, and she’s afraid of heights.

As we waited to board one of the five single-engine DeHavilland Otters that was noisily approaching the dock, there was some trepidation. Well, for one of us. What followed was a rewarding, fascinating experience. We knew from the name of the excursion that we’d have more salmon than we could eat, but the “flight” part was the eye-opener. Along with the bear.

The pilot, Sam Wright (no relation to the Wright brothers), quickly had us high enough to be looking down at glaciers. We’d spent a chunk of the previous week looking at glaciers and, now that you mention it, they were starting to look the same. Or at least like blood relatives. What we saw from both sides of the single-engine Otter were massive glaciers that looked like giant pieces of marshmallow laid side by each by a being greater than the ones who walk on earth. The most massive was the Taku Glacier, five miles wide and 57 miles long. It’s among Alaska’s top 10 in size but the nearby Mendenhall Glacier gets all the attention, because you can drive to it. Access is everything.

The Taku is reachable by float plane or by taking a long, long boat ride.

The lodge has a story of its own, one too long to tell here. But there is a man who guards the feasters from the bears with a stick a little shorter than 10 feet. The bear, arriving on cue when the dinner bell rings, didn’t get closer to us than 60 feet — although if he decided one of us looked better than the salmon lunch he could have — but it was close enough for us to enjoy the bear’s barbecue. There was no salmon, just the drippings from the barbecue onto the sand beneath. No bear ever tasted better sand!

The ride back was less spectacular only because we’d already seen this part of the Juneau Icefield, and the surrounding mountains, a few hours earlier.

So yes, Abe was right. This excursion was the best.

Skagway a 'Jewel' for Visitors

SKAGWAY — As we walked the streets of this former den of iniquity from Gold Rush days, we were overcome by the number of jewelry stores. They are a constant reminder that if prospectors really did invade this once-lawless town on the Canadian border, take the gold and get out…then they left some behind.

When confronted with jewelry vendors catering to cruise-ship passengers in many parts of the western world, we have often lamented their presence by saying: “Who buys all this jewelry?”

In Skagway, it was us.

We played right into the hands of the vendors. Having just gotten off the White Pass Yukon Route railway, we walked the streets of Skagway and noticed there was an Alaskan museum on one corner. Even better, it was free. The museum’s front is — at least in part — a jewelry store, and it’s called Corrington’s. So you had to walk through it to get to the free museum. We negotiated that part. Getting out was a different story. In reality, purchasing the jewelry was not succumbing to some sales pitch. It was somebody’s birthday, she needed a new bracelet and it’s not likely to happen at another port stop…for another year.

The museum may turn out to be on our top 10 list for Alaska. Okay, top 20. Any place that tells you about a “Bladder Festival” has to be worth a second look, free or not. The short version of the tale is that seal hunters saved and inflated the stomach of the seal and hung it from the rafters of the dance hall, because they believed the spirit of the seal remained in its stomach. The festival followed in the spring, when dances and songs were dedicated to the spirits before returning the bladders to the sea, where they could turn into seals (not sure how) and be caught all over again, all because the deceased seals were treated with such respect.

Well, you have to admit it’s a good story.

Another good story is the WPYR railway ride, one of the shore excursions we signed up for while sailing on the Coral Princess, which was making its first port stop since leaving Whittier. Having spent two days trying to see impressive glaciers in the rain, we were ready for…seeing the sights of White Pass in the rain. It was actually pretty good, in spite of the precipitation, with the weather’s adding a coat of mist that made the four-hour ride even more sinister.

The train whistles past a graveyard on its way to the White Pass Summit, where it takes you 100 yards or so across the Canadian border before the return trip to Skagway, again passing the graveyard, not to mention some astounding scenery. The significance of the graveyard is that in it rest Skagway’s two most famous combatants, the scoundrel Soapy Smith and the lawman Frank Reid, who both died after a shootout on the wharf. Legend is Soapy won the shootout because he died instantly while Reid suffered for 12 days with a fatal bullet in his groin.

Yes, another good story, right.

Alaska is full of them. It is even more full of jaw-dropping scenery, some of it on the WPYR trek to the peak. The elevation changes make you wonder how it was ever built with 19th-century technology, at a time when gold diggers were in a hurry to get to the Yukon, about 120 miles away. Photos never accurately reflect how impressive the scenery is, but the fact that dozens of camera bugs put themselves at modest risk by standing between the railcars gives you an idea.

There are rocks and waterfalls, tunnels and bridges, one of which we were sure was Alaska’s famous “bridge to nowhere (see photo)” until we remembered that it (a) is in Ketchikan and (b) doesn’t exist. The trip is the most popular of all Princess shore excursions, and a nice bookend for it is stopping at the Visitor Center in Skagway to watch an 18-minute video on what it takes to get to Whitehorse (today and 100 years ago) through one of two mountain passes, the Chilkoot and the White Pass.

The Visitor Center is just down the street from the museum. The one in the back of Corrington’s.

Alaskan Wildlife Sanctuary a Hit

KENAI, Alaska — The three bears, said the young man from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, are called Hugo, JB and Petrone. In a strange quirk of giving bears names, Hugo is female while JB and Petrone are male. Their names do indeed have something to do with alcoholic beverages.

And why is a female grizzly called Hugo? She was found, starved and dying, at the base of Mount Hugo.

These are grizzlies, or brown bears, and they are part of the menagerie of injured wild animals that now make the Center home. Their progress towards true natural habitat living is closely monitored. Some, like the bald eagle whose left wing was shot off, will never leave. Others will, in time.

Anybody can visit the Center — for a fee of course — if you can find it. It’s on the Kenai Peninsula, somewhere south-east of Anchorage, in the middle of nowhere, as wildlife preserves should be. Princess tries to make sure its CruiseTour customers see it, because it’s an amazing sidelight and because it means nobody will leave saying they didn’t see Alaska wildlife.

The fact that it’s in a controlled atmosphere is immaterial. Where else can you be 10 feet from a grizzly bear with only wire fencing between you without feeling like you’re about to become an endangered species yourself? There are 35,000 brown bears in Alaska and you’re as close to three of them as you’d ever want to be.

And where else can you find wood bison? Nowhere, because the once thought-to-be-extinct members of the buffalo family are only here, 50-some strong and getting ready to be released into the wild again in 2013. They were only 23 strong when they arrived, donated to the Center by a Canadian bush pilot who stumbled across them next door in the Yukon. It was the first time Alaska had seen wood bison in 150 years. If you’re wondering why “wood” is part of their identity, welcome to the club.

Readily available for photo-ops are moose and elk and black bears and cariboo and muskox and reindeer, none of them with red noses. The cariboo provide the entertainment, locking antlers so often that anybody wanting a home movie won’t go home without one. And then there are the lynx sisters, just seven years old and here because somebody kindly saved them from a forest fire.

The muskox, arguably the most aggressive animals on site, regularly square off at 50 to 100 paces, then meet in the middle, a collision that approximates a small to mid-size car smashing into a concrete barrier, according to Scott the guide, and when there’s wildlife concerned, who’s going to argue?

They say even Hugo, JB and Petrone are afraid.

For more on our Alaska adventures, click on Ports and Bows.

Cruise Challenge: North to Alaska!

Okay, so we’ve been landlocked for three weeks now, and there’s nothing on the cruise agenda. It must be time to find a ship’s itinerary with “Alaska” in it. With all the major cruise lines sailing north from Seattle or Vancouver, there are still summer deals to be had.

So the timing is good. Except for one thing.

If it’s a one-way 7-night cruise, there is the problem of getting there, or getting back. When it comes to busy airports, Anchorage isn’t exactly Atlanta for flight options.

Research is wonderful. So is the Travel Queen, who thinks she is always entitled to being able to use frequent flyer points IN ADDITION to getting a good deal on a cruise. Knock yourself out, I said.

She’s still working at shaving the costs down to her liking, but the one thing she did find out is that there’s good news on the frequent flyer front.

Alaska Airlines still has points tickets available this summer — for almost every day in July and August, from Seattle to Anchorage, Anchorage to Seattle, Vancouver to Anchorage, and Anchorage to Vancouver.

Now all she has to do is find the right cruise — and the money!

That’s it…we’re done.

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