Of frost and fjords
Shampa Sinha enjoys the ports of call and the icy scenery on an Alaska cruise
S the Norwegian Sun noses into Tracy Arm Fjord, we instinctively abandon our chairs and attach ourselves like barnacles to the railings of our balcony. This is landscape worthy of a standing ovation. Two thousand metre high mountains tower before us, their peaks grey and wrinkled like elephant hide, shaved bare by glaciers. On their lower slopes, spruce and hemlock attempt a comeback and every so often a waterfall glints into view. At the feet of these mountains, the fjord is a turquoise display panel for scattered
bergy bits’’ (our resident naturalist tells us over the ship’s public address system that they’re too small to qualify as icebergs).
Upon closer inspection, these appear as delicate and fragile as Swarovski crystals, each one crafted into a unique shape. Here an outstretched hand, there the disappearing ribcage of a whale. We round the bend and are greeted by the classic Alaskan postcard shot of a frozen river of cascading ice that is Sawyer Glacier against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Squeals of delight abound on both sides of the ship.
Our week-long cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage is full of such gasp-inducing moments. In Juneau we’re told our shore excursion includes a drive up to Mendenhall Glacier. It’s only when we see the glacier right beside the car park, draped casually like a bluishwhite shawl between two mountains that we realise we have literally driven up to the glacier.
In Skagway, the pine-forested slopes of the White Pass fall dramatically away into gulches and valleys. The snowy peaks of the Chilkoot Mountains gleam in afternoon sunshine as we rattle past in the dark-green coaches of the White Pass and Yukon Route train, climbing to more than 900m above sea level.
Fuelled by gold fever, the 32km railroad took only 26 months to build with 35,000 men even working through the harsh Alaskan winters. Apparently, news of the outside world was so much in demand that a railroad worker could make money just by charging a crowd of people to listen to him read out the latest newspaper. A cemetery along the railway route reminds us of the human sacrifices made in its construction.
Nature reigns supreme here and seems to accommodate civilisation grudgingly. In the port of Ketchikan we learn the land is solid rock and so unyielding that road construction is almost prohibitively expensive. Most
streets’’ in Ketchikan are vertical steps instead of bitumen, scaling the rockface leading up to houses.
At the various piers where our ship docks, we usually spot a bald eagle or two perched atop telegraph poles eyeing with regal disdain the ramp-loads of tourists, flocking to the waiting tour buses or pier-side souvenir shops. Bears regularly amble into Juneau, our guide tells us; on one occasion a brown bear wandered along the main highway for hours undisturbed by police because everyone mistook it for a man in a bear costume.
Recently the local grocery store had to build a sunroom in front of its original entrance because its security cameras had picked up shots of a black bear wandering in and out of the sliding doors and helping itself to the contents of the shelves. Where grocery stores fail to cater to a bear’s needs, mother nature takes over. At the Glacier Gardens, our carts trundle past shiny skunk cabbage leaves (so called because they stink when you bump into them) and we are advised that
backed-up’’ bears use them as a laxative after they emerge from hibernation.
Such stories raise my hopes of actually seeing a bear, preferably in the emblematic pose I’ve seen on fridge magnets and IMAX movies, with a salmon dangling from its mouth. But nature calls the shots, and bears remain the stuff of myth for me. Nature does oblige, however, with the occasional sighting of an orca fin slicing through the water or the fleeting glimpse of a humpback whale fanning its tail. These incidents send passengers scurrying from the buffets or pausing in their promenades to stand on the fortuitous side of the ship, eagerly scanning the waves for a repeat performance.
Salmon sightings are a dime a dozen. It is spawning season, and every lake, stream and body of water is thick with their writhing, dark-silvery bodies and heavy with the stench of rotting corpses after the parents have performed their last task of laying and fertilising their eggs. Their corpses will in turn be fed upon by the hatching salmon larvae, and so the cycle continues.
At Juneau’s Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, one of the five largest in Alaska, while standing beside vats of hyperactive leaping salmon, we are told how to differentiate between the Coho, pink and Chinook varieties. We are also treated to the gory details of how fertilisation is facilitated within the hatchery. ‘‘ Basically we lead the salmon into a vat we call the dream machine and kill them by running a low-grade electric current through the water,’’ our jovial hatchery guide tells us.
The female salmon are then slit open and their eggs poured into a bucket. The male salmon have their stomachs squeezed for sperm over the bucket and the eggs are then carefully mixed in with this to make sure all eggs are fertilised. ‘‘ We call it ‘ artificial insalmonation’,’’ quips our guide and then, witnessing the horrified looks on our faces, he hastens to add that the salmon don’t feel any pain throughout this seemingly brutal process and it does ensure a greater number of salmon are eventually spawned than if they were left to their own devices. An information board outside the hatchery suggests a recipe favoured by the native Tlingit society: ‘‘ Boil salmon steaks with seal oil using a hot rock. Use the left-over liquid to prepare a soup of salmon eggs and seaweed.’’
The Tlingit and Haida tribes who first populated Alaska surely would have frowned upon the hatchery’s ‘‘ insalmonation’’ practices. They were big believers in co-existing with the elements rather than attempting to control them. On the fringes of Ketchikan’s Tongass National Forest, we stand in bracing summer breezes to learn the stories behind the Tlingit totem poles at Potlach Park. The park derives its name from the ceremony hosted by a clan chief to commemorate the erection of a totem pole or other such festive occasions.
It is only after the pole is erected that the story behind it is shared with others for the first time by the pole’s creator. The base for the paints used on the poles is oil created by a mixture of salmon eggs and saliva chewed and spat out by the indigenous women. Other natural additives are used depending on the colour. Powdered clam shells are used to make white paint, for example. ‘‘ Nowadays, the women refuse to chew the eggs so the Indians use store-bought paint,’’ the guide laments. I have to wonder why egg-chewing and spitting is considered solely a woman’s job.
Ravens and eagles feature as prominent motifs on totem poles and all Tlingit and Haida are descendants
Gasp-inducing: Norwegian Sun at rest beneath the grandeur of Alaskan mountains; its week-long voyage takes in glaciers, miniature icebergs, bald eagles and the prospect of bears