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Wildlife In Alaska Often Surprising


ALASKA — For a few days, we thought our views of Alaskan wildlife might be the mosquito on the sidewalk in Anchorage, the crazed woman standing on the side of the Parks Highway menacingly cradling a rock in her hand and a moose of uncertain gender and size that we spotted from the seat of a de Havilland Beaver, flying 2,000 feet above the Chulitna River.

Then, along came Mother Moose.

That’s her in the picture, leading her two offspring through the non-wilderness at Denali National Park.


This picture was taken about 50 feet from Mama and her kids, on the doorstep of the park’s Visitor Center. There were probably 300 people who in those minutes were this DSCN8449close to the moose family, and not much further away were 10 or 12 buses. We’d just disembarked from one of them, and this was the first stop of the Princess Cruises’ Natural Wilderness Tour.

It was the last place we expected to see a moose, especially one so close.

There are two types of wilderness you see in Alaska. On land tours like this one, particularly in Denali, you can hope to see not just moose but also bears and cariboo and dall sheep. Also mosquitoes, of which there are 13 species, all of which bite. On cruise ship tours in the Alaska ports, you can hope to see whales…as well as bears and cariboo and dall sheep.

The key word is “hope.”

In Alaska, seeing wildlife can be a challenge. Often it takes you by surprise, as it did when we were hiking a mile to the Mendenhall Glacier during a Star Princess shore excursion IMG_2049called Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Quest, which our bus driver called the best tour in Juneau, and he wouldn’t get an argument from us. One of the unexpected wildlife events was seeing this porcupine not six feet off the path where we walked. This wasn’t our first porcupine, but it was our first in natural habitat, and he/she seemed okay with the clicking camera phones.

The second half of that six-hour tour delivered the whales. Whales were not just a promised, they were guaranteed…or you get your money back. At least at this time of IMG_5802year, when the humpbacks are back from their winter vacations in Hawaii, tour guides are more than comfortable throwing down that gauntlet, and the first whales we spotted were just 15 minutes or so after leaving Juneau.

How many did we see?

Too many to count. A couple of (pods) of between six and 10. We saw them creating bubble nets (as if surrounding a school of fish), and we saw them breaching (below)Whales— apparently you seldom see them do both on the same trip, or at the same time. 

The experts say that whales are smart, so maybe they just know when to put on a show.

Maybe the moose knew, too.

In the news…

• Low water levels in Europe forcing river cruise lines to change itineraries
• American Cruise Lines' Mississippi riverboat named America to debut in 2016
• Holland America 'Explore 4' promotion for booking early rewards for 2016-17

Today at portsandbows.com: The changing world of cruise dining

Carnival Liberty
7 nights
September 27, 2015
San Juan (return): St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten
Inside: $409
Cost per day: $58

Friday File: Why Wildlife Is A Winner

Have you ever noticed that the best TV commercials, even the ones on Super Bowl Sunday, often feature animals? For whatever reason, any kind of wildlife captures our imaginations, or at least our camera lens, and that’s why among the thousands of pictures we’ve taken while on cruises, so many of them are of a creature who won’t pose, doesn’t consent to having its photo taken and can’t charge photographers for royalties…

Costa Rica-bird

Help us here, people…if we ever knew what kind of bird this was in Costa Rica, we’ve forgotten.


Cruising Alaska this summer? Watch for an Iditarod dog: They’re noisy, scrawny and friendly.

Hawaii-monk seal

Pride of America passengers may see one of these monk seal, protected on the beach at Lihue, Kauai.


This Coxen Hole cat in Roatan, Honduras, gave us this steely glare throughout lunch, then cleaned our plates.

SF-sea lions

Pier 39 in San Francisco always comes with more sea lions than you can imagine, barking and posing, of course.

Today at portsandbows.com: Norwegian backtracks on food to rooms

Holland America Oosterdam
7 nights
July 19, 2015
Vancouver, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Anchorage
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

Alaska Adventure: One Last Time

Remembrances from and suggestions for spending two weeks in the 48th state…

Be on the lookout for nature even when you least expect it. These two pigeons we spotted on the docks where the float planes are moored in Juneau. At first we thought it was rather cute to see a couple of pigeons’ kissing…and then we realized, they must be mating. It was still cute, and went on for longer than…never mind.

Make sure you listen to the cruise people who recommend “layered clothing” because chances are they’ll be right. The idea in having several layers is that when it gets cold, you layer up, and after the temperature rises — it could be 15 minutes later — you layer down. In the fall, layering is a must; in prime cruise season it’s a good idea.

Check fear at the door 1: The chances of seeing wildlife can be rare, the chances of encountering a bear or a moose on the trails are rarer still and the chances of being in danger in such an encounter are remote. But it happens.

Check fear at the door 2: Don’t be afraid of flying in that single-engine plane — they’re in backyards the way swimming pools are in most cities — and even dare to go zip-lining (a woman in her 70s in our group did!).

Ports throughout the state are generally small and generally busy. It’s a short season and four cruise lines — Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity — all sail regularly to Alaska.

The most important newspaper headline may not have been Alaska’s acceptance as state No. 49 in 1959, nor John McCain’s decision to make Sarah Palin famous…rather the one that informed Captain James Waddell that the General Lee surrendered and the Civil War was over. This happened two months after the war really ended but Capt. Waddell is credited with firing the final shot — just before he read the paper.

Take sunglasses, just in case the clouds clear.

If you rent a car, don’t think Alaska’s oil means a break at the pumps. All the oil is shipped south, and then back north. It has to be refined and returned. There are no refineries in Alaska.

Relax if it looks likes weather is going to scrap your plans for the day. Alaskans have to be the most flexible people in the world in changing plans for tourists.

Find a way to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, in Kenai south of Anchorage. It’s not free but it’s good.

There can be a 150-degree temperature swing in Fairbanks, from 90F to -60F.

Don’t believe anybody who says the Iditarod in 1925 was the first meaningful dog-sled race, from Whittier to Nome. The All Alaska Sweep Stakes was for big (relatively speaking) bucks, for 10 years (1908 to 1917), from Candle to Nome.

Feel free to look at fur jackets in stores without thinking somebody’s standing behind you with a can of ink to destroy it. This is a fur-trading culture, always has been and few places are nowadays.

Take every chance you get to see a glacier. The most impressive one may not be in Glacier Bay, or the one called Hubbard, or Mendenhall at Juneau. And if you can swing it, fly over one.

Enjoy the locals, and the transplants. Everybody, it seems, is from another state and some of them even stay year-round, which makes them a local.

If you’re on one of those all-you-can-eat-seafood excursions, skip breakfast or at least keep it light. Let’s see…an English muffin or Dungeness crab.

Forget about watching U.S. television in the Inside Passage. CNN is International and the American networks are AWOL. Go figure.

The best free historical talk and movie is in a back room at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, about World War II.

Be prepared to hear this line two or three times about how there are more women than men in (fill in the blank): “The odds are good…but the goods are odd.”

If you come within shouting distance of the Mug Shot Saloon, expect to hear this: “”Only bar in Alaska where they check you for a weapon…if you don’t have one they’ll give you one.”

Moose Overboard in Alaska Waters

ON THE CORAL PRINCESS — Her name is Boujke Bijlsma and one morning at 6 a.m. she was sitting in her office on the Coral Princess. She looked out the window onto the waters of Alaska and there, swimming furiously, was a moose.

She watched for a few seconds, then turned back to her deskwork. That’s when it hit her. The moose was swimming with no land on the horizon. The moose was drowning.

Boujke reached for the phone.

“I called someone on board and told them I could see a moose drowning, so we could do something and save him!” she recalls.

The person on the other end of the phone calmed her down by saying the moose wasn’t drowning, and that a moose could swim as far as 60 miles, and that moose regularly swim from island to island.

“I had no idea,” she says.

Why would she?

Boujke Bijlsma is from the home of that great cheese, gouda, in The Netherlands. On this Princess ship, she is in charge of the food and beverage department…and not in charge of saving a moose.

For another look at our visit to Alaska, check out Phil Reimer’s Ports and Bows blog by clicking here.

Alaska Wildlife Thrills EVERYONE

Many moons ago, a young woman named Adele was part of our wedding party. She was from a “taxidermy family” that for years operated a business preparing animals to hang on the walls of family rooms and dens.

A few years later, she took her mother to Alaska. It was the first trip for both and they had little anticipation of seeing “wildlife” because there was barely an animal they hadn’t seen, in one form or another. When their cruise started, and wildlife began appearing on the landscape, they were amused at the comments of other passengers…

“Look, there’s a bald eagle!”

“Oooh, a cariboo!”

“Ahh, a grizzly!”

Within a few days, Adelle and her mother were captivated by the wildlife. There were still many “Looks!” and “Ooohs!” and “Ahhs!” The difference was they joined the chorus.

What happens in Alaska is that, at the first hint of wildlife, people reach for their cameras in the hope they can catch a moose memory before the moose disappears or the train or bus passes the hot spot. What often happens is the wild animal seen through the window is indistinguishable through the lens — can YOU find the cariboo in the Alaska picture above? — but that doesn’t stop everyone from being on wildlife alert, does it?

Tomorrow, you’ll be able to read about our first Alaska adventure, starting with a week of Princess Cruise Tours followed by a week on the Coral Princess. We fully expect to be scrambling shutterbugs when there’s a wildlife spotting…or rumor. We anticipate being unable to control our vocal chords, never mind our enthusiasm.

If even people with a taxidermy background are left breathless by Alaska, what chance is there it won’t happen to us?

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