The churn of the shallow water created as thousands of fish struggled upstream was quite amazing.

Alaska has never really been on my “places you gotta see before you die” list. However, when I was invited on a cruise by my friend to celebrate his 50th birthday, I reconsidered. Having asked several people who have taken this cruise, they told me it was beautiful and definitely worth doing. I decided to give it a shot and I’m very glad I did. It was a surprisingly interesting trip; I learned a lot and met some awesome people.

I am by no means a “cruiser”. I’ve only been on one other cruise, about 15 years ago, to the eastern Caribbean. I have to say, I wasn’t greatly impressed. The excursions were fun and we had a nice group, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t really like being “stuck on a boat”. This time, there was a totally different purpose and vibe. I took part in more activities, the onboard presentations were very “educational” and the scenery was amazingly beautiful and unspoiled.

Our location guide, Humberto, gave a great talk on “the Fur, Feathers and Fins of Alaska”. Because we had chosen kayaking trips in both Juneau and Ketchikan and a hike in Skagway, I was particularly interested in learning more about the wildlife we might see on our excursions. Because of these outings, and because I’m not much of a shopper, we didn’t really spend a whole lot of time in the towns. They (Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan excursions) were small and mostly run by young, seasonal workers who make the trip to Alaska in March and leave when tourism season is over in October.

Some of you might know that I grew up on the east coast of Canada, which means I’ve eaten quite a lot of seafood in my life. However, it’s been years since I’ve had such fresh, delicious and plentiful fare… king crab, salmon and halibut were made into steamed crab legs, grilled salmon fillets and deep fried fish and chips – you name it, if it was on the menu and I knew it was local, I’d eat it.

As you can imagine, salmon is VERY popular up there, with the fishery being one of their main sources of income (and it’s one of my favourite meals). I learned a lot about them – things many of you might know but I didn’t – like the fact that there are five different kinds of salmon, which can be remembered easily by the five digits on one hand.

five kinds of salmon
An easy way to remember the kinds of salmon

 

On our kayaking trip to the Mendenhall Glacier outside Juneau, I got to witness the natural phenomenon of a spawning ground during the annual salmon run. I knew that salmon return to die in the exact river where they were born, but actually seeing it was something else. The churn of the shallow water created as thousands of fish struggled upstream, the silver glint of their skin as they jumped over each other, was quite amazing. (sadly I didn’t have my camera out, so you’ll have to take my word for it!) Adult Coho (or silver) salmon in salt water or newly returning to fresh water are bright silver with small black spots on the back and on the upper lobe of the tail fin. Salmon often travel thousands of miles – some have been tracked from Japan.

Something else I found fascinating was that once they spawn, salmon literally begin to disintegrate. Before reaching the bubbling water of the run, we noticed many carcasses (or parts thereof) in the water. Some were still intact but yet not moving under the water. It was a bit spooky and macabre – like their life’s work had been accomplished and now they were done. They didn’t fight death, only an occasional lacklustre swish of their tail gave proof they were still alive. Our guide told us that bears won’t even touch them in that state (unless they are very hungry and preparing to hibernate, when they will pretty much eat anything…) because the taste of the fish changes so quickly – and not in a good way.

I found it astounding. I love my hometown but I’m not sure I’d feel the same way if I knew my return was only to become bear food or self-destruction! I can’t say that I’d be all that jazzed about leaving my cool, new digs only to go home and have it all end very badly. I’m more into Finding Nemo than Jaws…

As nonchalant as I was about visiting Alaska, the trip was completely worth adding to my World Tour 2016. The kayaking and wildlife sightings were very cool and the beauty of the remote coastline was humbling and impressive. If you’re looking for places to visit, I’d highly recommend adding this cruise to your list.

Margerie Glacier, Alaska
Cruising up Glacier Bay, we got a close up look at the Margerie Glacier
Starfish on Eagle Island, Alaska
Colourful starfish cling to the rock at Eagle Island, near Ketchikan
Kayaking Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska
Kayaking Mendenhall Glacier and wetlands, near Juneau, Alaska

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Side notes:

Ketchikan claims to be the salmon capital of the world – but Campbell River, B.C. also claims that title. I am open to arguments on either side…

The talons of bald eagles have an auto-locking mechanism, so once they catch their prey, they can’t let go of it until they land on a hard surface. So, often eagles will drown if they attempt to catch some thing that is too heavy for them to get airborne again.

 

Unexpected Alaska sidetrip

Alaska sea and sky

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