Of frost and fjords

Shampa Sinha en­joys the ports of call and the icy scenery on an Alaska cruise

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

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

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