Monthly Archives: June 2013
Cruisin’ Alaska… Bringing Coals to Newcastle.
There’s a phenomena that appears to be familiar the world over, where women do their shopping and either fail to tell their spouses about their new acquisitions or they may down play the actual cost of their recent shopping finds. Ladies, you know exactly what I am talking about. Well actually, this phenomena is not limited just to women. Yeah sure, women might comment to their husbands about a fabulous new dress is ‘Oh what? No, this old thing? I’ve had it for years’ or ‘Yes, these are new shoes, but they were having a 50% off stocktake sale and’, blah blah blah, excuses galore for having splashed out on something nice for themselves… From what I’ve seen – plenty of men do it too! That circular saw? Had it for years. This expensive imported wool/silk scarf (you know I’m talking about you, MrC), well that was on sale of course. And that new target pistol you bought, well it was only *cough* $800… yeah, $800 more than what I’m willing to tell you it cost. Old habits die hard. We seem to think spending money on our own hobbies, our own little personal proclivities (whether it is your shoe collection, your gun collection or your nail polish collection!) is completely frivolous and unnecessary so we lie to our spouses about what we buy and how much we spend.
They’re only little white lies but we do it nonetheless probably because deep down somewhere we think we don’t deserve nice things. And I think I have figured out where it comes from. When we are kids, we first start getting money to spend at our own discretion from our parents, usually in the form of pocket money. And those same parents are charged with the responsibility of trying to teach us to spend our money wisely… be thrifty… make good retail decisions. Or we get our first jobs and feel rich! Rich! Rich, I tell you! I remember when I got my first full time job and was being paid the grand sum of $422 per fortnight in the hand – and it felt like a small fortune, especially given I was previously working only a few hours a week at a newsagent in a part time job paying about $60 a week. Naturally, when that fortnightly pay check starts rolling in, Mum and Dad start telling you how you should be spending it… save Amount A, put Amount B away for your bills (What bills? I’m 16! We didn’t have mobile phones back then and I didn’t have a car loan or anything), leaving you with Amount C for weekly spending money. When you’re a teenager – budget equals BORING! But anytime I bought anything, whether it was a new top to wear to work or a pair of Doc Marten boots to wear on the weekends, I would come home to a disapproving look from my Mum and a ‘How
much did that cost?’ Sigh… Well, of course I fucking lied more than half the time. ‘Yep Mum, those Doc Martens were only $60 and they’ll last me for years.’ – everyone knows Docs are twice that price, at least. ‘No Mum, this isn’t a new blouse, I picked it up after last years winter sales.’ and so on and so forth. And it becomes a habit to feel like you shouldn’t spend money on yourself and we most certainly fess up to how much money we spend on ourselves. Anyway, I’ve travelling at the moment with my Mum and finding myself browsing around the galleries and gift shops and being extremely restrained in the shopping department. Which has been really hard up here in Alaska with their $400 per carat tanzanites and their stupidly cheap and fine qualities wholesale diamonds. Sheesh! I haven’t even wanted to splash out on souvenir t-shirts to take home for that old niggardly expectation that Mum will be looking on at any shopping I might do with disapprobation. Stupid huh? But then you wouldn’t believe what happened… we get to Skagway, our last shore stop in Alaska and we walk into a Starbucks to buy a hot chocolate. Must be the weirdest Starbucks on the planet, because while I have seen plenty of coffee shop/bookshop combos, I have never seen a coffee shop/fine jewellery shop combos.
So while we are having our hot chocolates, we are also browsing counters upon counter of alexandrite, tanzanite, ammolite, emeralds, rubies, rainbow sapphires, and diamonds, diamonds and more diamonds! Weird huh? ‘Would you like a caramel latte whip with your 4ct cushion cut ruby?’ 😛 Well, Mum finds a ring she likes the look of, it’s rose gold and has .7ct of 30 invisible set chocolate coloured diamonds. We get to chatting with the sales dude, he gives her an unbelievably good first price and Mum starts to try on the ring. I immediately jump in with a ‘that’s way too expensive’ and the price immediately drops about $700 without blinking (did I mention how cheap the diamonds are up here??!).
Anyway, she umms and ahhs a bit, and I try hard to stay out of it as she keeps asking me what I think about it. I deliberately didn’t tell her to buy it, but did point out that we
won’t be coming back, that’s it was quite an unusual style, and that it seemed to be for a good price (well, it would be when I finished with him), but, if she liked it, and wanted to buy it, she was going to have to make up her own mind. Anyway, I never in a million years would have though my mum, who used to ride me about buying new WORK clothes, would buy herself a diamond ring while on holidays… but she did! And here was me (in the back of my head somewhere) perpetually concerned about her disapproval for spending a couple of hundred dollars on stuff for the boys at home. Not only did she buy herself a diamond ring, but she bought herself a fancy new tax free watch too! Even though there is nothing wrong with the watch she already has – yeah, once upon a time, she would have said that to me if I wanted a new watch, ‘You already have a good watch, what do you need another one for?’
Anyway, trust Mum to splash out and hit the shopping hard on our last in-port day in Alaska… once I was already safely past all the wholesale jewellers in the previous ports! Well, that’s it. I am now officially, off the leash! I will risk her disapproval and point to the diamond ring on her finger and say, ‘I’m buying whatever the hell I can fit in that there damn suitcase!’ 😀 Oh, and the absolute best bit about Mum’s highly unusual and out of character diamond ring purchase… the diamonds were mined in the Kimberley, at the Argyll diamond mine in northern Western Australia! Come all the way to Alaska, folks, and buy some Australian diamonds, that’s how it’s done! 😛
Cruisin’ Alaska… Skagway
Cruisin’ Alaska… Juneau
everyone seems to be absolutely obsessed with their McDonalds.
No fewer than three tour guides felt the McDonalds was
noteworthy enough to point out to us in the town on barely 31,000
people! Juneau is the third largest city in Alaska behind
Anchorage and Fairbanks, and they’ve had a McDonalds restaurant
since 1982. The first tour guide told us it was the only take
out up here other than a Subway and that the day they opened they
had a line literally a mile long and that they sold a record
breaking 17,000 hamburgers on their opening day. The second
guide added in the extra tidbit that the McDonalds had to close for
an entire week after that opening day because they had sold out of
their entire inventory! The third guide I encountered who
thought Maccas was monumentally important to the town of Juneau
told a story of how the Mayor of Skagway missed his McDonalds so
much that he bought enough McDonalds for the entire town of
Skagway, had it all put in an ambulance, driven out of town to the
airport and flown the Skagway where it was greeted by Skagway’s
high school marching band, boy scout troops, and a half holiday for
the entire town as they came out to have their McDonalds!
That last bit is just detailed enough to be for real…
either way, these people are obsessed with their take out (or lack
thereof) as we also heard a story of how Taco Bell opened in Juneau
a few years ago, but got closed down after they were found to be
selling illegal drugs through the drive through.
what did we come here for again? Oh yep, the Mendenhall
Glacier, which feeds Mendenhall Lake and the Mendenhall River, in
the Mendenhall Valley near Mount Mendenhall… all named after one
of the original surveyors and cartographers up this a ways back in
the late 1800s some dude named Mendenhall, who never actually came
to Juneau at all – it is a very pretty glacier btw, and extremely
easy to access. You can take a shuttle bus straight up to it
for $8 each way and wander around taking some photos of the blue
ice and some iceberg chunks that have cracked off it (the
Mendenhall is receding at the moment, approximately 400 odd feet
every years since the late 1770s, which is fairly
lunch and get out stuff ready the afternoon… Aunty Mary was off
canoeing and I was off for a whale watching expedition and wildlife
quest. I spent the afternoon on a catamaran cruising around
the Auke Bay and the Lynn Canal looking for bald eagles, humpback
whales, seals, sea lions and sea otters as well as deer and bears
on the islands as we passed by. We saw plenty of humpback
whales and bald eagles and Stella sea lions, Dalls porpoises but a
little light on the other creatures we were hoping to see.
The naturalist on board was full of interesting information
about the animals as well as about Juneau in general so it was a
really interesting afternoon.
Joe Juneau who literally bribed the townsfolk to name the town
after him in a poll, by buying them plenty of liquor (great
politican in the making that Joe). I learned that the Red Dog
Saloon in downtown Juneau sports an old pistol on the wall that
allegedly belonged to the famous Wyatt Earp himself, which was
kinda cool, but not cool enough to go ferret out a glimpse of this
learned that Alaska was bought from Russia in 1867 by the United
States for the princely sum of $7.2m which worked out to be
approximately $0.022c per acre, but wasn’t made a state until 1959.
I learned that the major industries/employers in Juneau are
government and public administration, followed by tourism, followed
by the salmon fishing industry. Oh, and I saw the Governor’s
mansion… and let me tell you that dumb bint Sarah Palin was lying
through her damn teeth. The Governor’s Mansion is a six
bedroom, ten bathroom stately home not far out of down town Juneau
and it is well and truly blocked by a fucking mountain range
from seeing Russia on a clear day!
I stopped into one of the many, many jewellery stores that have
proliferated nearly every Alaskan town and had a look at some
tanzanite… the prices here are scary. Gorgeous colour,
bright and clear, 2.75ct trillion cut stone set in a yellow gold
and diamond ring – $1950. I had to high tail it out of there
quick smart before I went and hit the credit card hard with a
tanzanite ring, some earrings and a pendant I didn’t need, and
would probably hardly ever wear! Oooh, aaah, shiny!
late than never… a bald eagle I saw yesterday in Ketchikan and
the bear I saw in Jasper downloaded from my good camera
Cruisin’ Alaska… Ketchikan
‘Welcome to Ketchikan! Alaska’s first city! Population is 8,400 souls and yet we have 34 jewellery stores for y’all.’, said Bob, our bus driver, this morning. Today, Aunty Mary went snorkelling in the stupidly cold 50-60 degrees waters of the North Pacific and I went to Tongass National Park which is apparently some 14 million square miles, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, national park in the US. Bob was very droll and full of fun facts.
Ketchikan has an average annual rainfall over 162″ – that’s INCHES! But an average snowfall of only 34″. There’s a saying up here, that if you can’t see Deer Mountain (the mountain which provides a beautiful back drop for the town of Ketchikan), then it’s raining… if you can see it, it’s going to be raining soon. A lot of the town of Ketchikan was built during the gold rush of the late 1800s, however not a lot of gold was found here at that time and many of the claimers sold off their claim to residential properties pretty quickly on and moved further north. A goodly portion of Ketchikan’s shopping district on Creek Street is built over a largish creek that is actually a waterway that the salmon rushes when the season starts in a few weeks. They get five types of salmon coming into the area to spawn and you can see them in their thousands all suddenly turning up, but we were a little early for that.
Dolly’s Place in the picture is an old brothel founded by a famous local prostitute who stayed working in Creek Street running a place until her death in 1977… back in the good old days there was a path leading to the red light district (which is now paved) but once a telltale muddy path literally named, ‘Married Man’s Trail’. This well known local track apparently led to many married men coming home with muddy trousers or boots only to find themselves being accused of going off to the whorehouse and not being at work! (Like I said, Bob was full of local flavour!).
Many of the homes here are high on the hills, with long long staircase leading up to their front doors… according to our erudite guide, if you have 100 or more steps from the road to your house, the City of Ketchican is obliged to name your steps an official City lane. After which point the staircases then become under the city’s jurisdiction for maintenance and even the city’s responsibility for clearing your steps of snow because it’s an official City street. As you can imagine, there are many homes with staircases that switchback on themselves to squeeze in an extra step here or there to hit the magic 100 that means the City is responsible for them. 🙂
Anyway, we got out to Tongass National Park and did a nature hike through the estuary area. I found out lots of things about plants that we had been commonly encountering in Canada – for example, the skunk cabbage that we saw in Revelstoke National Park is a very ancient plant and apparently very malodorous (not that we noticed it back in Revelstoke?). It’s atrocious stench was evolutionarily beneficial as it would attract flies that carried out the pollination in a period before bees were prevalent to do this (bees being attracted to sweet and sugary plants). Additionally, I found out that bears eat the roots of the skunk cabbage as it works like a natural laxative for them – when bears hibernate, they deliberately consume lots of bark and non digestible crap to plug up their gut and stop their bowels from working while they hibernate, so when they reemerge in the summer, they hit the skunk weed roots and it gets them going again!
I also learned today, that when female bears are in season they will mate with numerous other bears and carry around several fertilized embryos until it’s time to hibernate. If the momma bear has the required 35% additional body weight to sustain hibernation, pregnancy and birth, the embryos will survive and grow into cubs – usually two or three cubs is quite common. The cubs will be born during the hibernation period and be about the size of a large mouse, growing to be the size of small dogs by the time they emerge in the spring. If however, the female bear does not have enough fat reserves to achieve this, any embryos she may be carrying will spontaneously abort! Fascinating stuff… but I digress.
Where was I? Oh yes, Skunk Cabbage and Western Red Cedar etc. The First Nation people (which is what the indigenous peoples up in Alaska prefer to be known as) call the Wester Red Cedar, the Tree of Life because they use it for literally everything. The timber is used for building, making homes, canoes, clan houses etc. The bark is used to strip and make woven baskets, mats, hats and what have you. The cedar also attracts a lot of moss that grows on the lower branches that grow in the darkness of the rainforest which creates a symbiotic relationship. As the trees grow larger and taller, the lower branches receive less and less sunlight which means they end up with fewer leaves on them and become a drain on the trees resources. The heavy coats of mosses that grow on these barren lower leaves can become heavy with water during heavy storms, causing these now parasitic lower branches to be automatically pruned off. Very clever.
We also learned about a plant called Devil’s Club, which is apparently far more toxic that your average poison oak or poison ivy (for whatever that is worth to your average travelling Aussie!) as it will leave you itching and burning for days after coming into contact with it. It is also covered in tiny brittle spikes, which if they get embedded in your skin are nigh on impossible to remove because they keep breaking off they are so brittle. Additionally they are covered in bacteria and cause infection pretty damn quick. So we got told to stay the hell away from that stuff and strangely enough – every one did what they were told.
The other thing they told us about the Devil’s Club was that they have found pharmazoological (much like the skunk weed and its natural laxative thing) properties that scientists are currently pursuing as a potential cure for diabetes. Cool, huh. We also discovered lots about all the berries that grow naturally in this area – blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries and something called salmon berries (yeah, I didn’t ask). Salmon berries look a bit like raspberries and range in colour from bright red to orangey yellows… and they taste like a cross between raspberries and watermelons! Very cool. People round here just pick ’em and eat ’em where they find them because apparently they just will not preserve. We were told you can’t even freeze dry them and expect them to last the trip to Seattle, they’ll have rotted by then. Go figure.
A little further into our nature tour we came out into a clearing which is an area of the estuary that has a salmon hatchery… the hatchery has some artificial salmon ladders which attract the salmon up into the hatchery, at which point the salmon are trapped. They will spawn in the hatchery which allows fingerlings to be bred that are then released in areas that are being repopulated with salmon. This whole salmon hatchery area does three things:
- helps out the salmon industry
- provides somewhere for the local bears to catch a quick feed and
- attracts hundreds of bald eagles.
We only saw one bear on our little hike, but as we wandered around, my fancy new lens paid for itself yet again as I took some awesome shots of these incredible birds! I had come out this morning hoping to see a bald eagle, but never dreamed I’d see over thirty of them! Lots of skittish juveniles, as well as plenty of mature birds that were quite happy to sit and let you get fairly close to them. I even managed to get some photos of them in mid-air with their 8′ wingspan fully extended. These eagles are enormous, much larger than the wedge tail eagles I have seen at home, and so distinctive with their white heads and yellow beaks.
There are approximately 30,000 bald eagles in Alaska so there is no conservation program or even a counting program for them as they have always been plentiful up here, compared to the lower US states where bald eagles have become endangered in some areas. We saw this one up close in a raptor enclosure because she unfortunately can’t be released to the wild any more, but I took lots of photographs of the wild ones outside. We also saw a Great Horned Owl that was in a similar boat – rehabilitated from injury but unable to be released. After that we went to feed some reindeer. Apparently reindeer are completely domesticated and raised for their antler velveteen and their meat – there’s a reindeer sausage factory in town somewhere, so we might have to try some of that if we come across it on a menu somewhere.
Part of our tour also took in an old timber mill from the early 1900s in the area and all their old equipment, as well as a visit to a totem pole carver, named Wayne who happened to be working on some commissions for the Alaskan Wildlife Sanctuary (that we had just come through) that were to be 12′ long totems of the various salmon that come to the area – five totems in all, and he was working on the King Salmon totem while we were there. He showed us the tools of his craft and we learned later from Bob, that your ‘average totem costs about $3,000… per foot! So a regular sized totem can cost up to $85,000. Holy shit! I mean they’re cool and all, but not that cool!
After that we headed down the the George Inlet lodge where we were provided with a full all you can eat Alaskan crab feast, caught on some of the ships that you see in that TV show, ‘Deadliest Catch’. It was a beautiful spot on a gorgeous day (yep, we were fortunate enough to see the top of Deer Mt when we came into town so it was not, at present, raining 😛 ). Our wait staff were all wearing waders, which I thought was really odd until Holly and Mac proceeded to give a lesson to those crab eating novices among the crowd (and strangely, there was plenty of them), on how to go about eating their crab. Water and crab juice and shell went flying everywhere as they demonstrated the best way to get into the crabmeat. I though, great… I’m going to have to go do laundry tonight as I only have one decent jumper with me! Turns out, the only people in the room who could get into their crab with any skill or decorum were a couple of guys from Florida, some people from lobster country in Maine and one other Aussie and myself! Everyone else got covered in crab and made a huge mess, causing lots of laughter and more than a few exclamations of ‘Oh shit!’ to ring across the room. 😛 It was all you could eat so I had about half a largish crab, seeing we had skipped breakfast, and that was plenty for me, but there was a guy at the next table who must have put away two whole crabs, complete with heaps of hot butter sauce to dip it in! Turns out last tourist season (May to September) they served up over 33,000lbs of local crab at this one restaurant. I keep telling Aunty Mary that, the local cuisine is a big part of the travel experience, but she won’t believe me! 🙂