Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rails, whales and eagles

JUNEAU, Alaska – Up here at the roof of North America it rains. And rains. And rains some more. One can almost feel one's joints corroding.

But the infamous summer weather of the Alaskan coast can be dealt with simply by donning raincoats, over one's camera as well as one's torso, and forging on into the wet. The sights are just as spectacular in fog as they are in sunlight.

Aboard Holland-America Lines's Statendam on the way south the last couple of days from Seward through College Fjord and Glacier Bay, we saw glaciers from up so close we could almost reach out and touch them. (A watched glacier never calves, don't you know?) At the dinner hour emerging from Glacier Bay the ship passed close aboard a school of whales playfully lifting and slapping their tails.

The next day in Haines a high-speed catamaran ferried some of us from the ship's mooring 40 minutes to Skagway, the world's capital of tourist schlock, a place so shameless that it's amusing. The town's most popular bar features pretend hookers with real bosoms bursting out of camisoles. Cheap gift shops (Polar Fleece! $9.99! T-shirts! $1.99!) choke the main drag.

Even the storied White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railroad resorts to artifice – most of its scores of little open-platform coaches are steel replicas, not restored wooden carriages. But its distinctive diesel locomotives are the real thing, and so is the twisting 67-mile-long line up the Skagway River to Carcross, Yukon Territory, over gorges and high trestles and past willowy waterfalls hanging from the clouds.

For the rail buff with a camera, riding on the open platform of the last car of the 15-car train (evidently a Holland-America perk) is heavenly. Only the locomotive cab could afford a better view.

My group detrained at Fraser, B.C., Mile 27.7) after a Canadian customs agent cursorily glanced at our passports. (“Do not photograph the agents. Your camera will be confiscated.”) Others returned to Skagway on the train, but we chose to make the trip back to the ferry dock on a bus. (A U.S. Customs agent made a similar cursory passport check at the border.)

The WP&Y, like much else in Alaska, is devoted to the tourist trade. A few freight cars molder in the yards, but they're not used to haul cargo into the hinterlands. Rather, the road hauls passengers, and it's fun to watch the trains come in, some of them heading directly for sidings across from cruise ships. Incoming locomotives are uncoupled from one end of their trains, then are run around and coupled to the other end for the journey into the mountains. It's a quick, slick operation that made up for the kitsch of the town and the four glitzy floating Las Vegas cruise palaces in Skagway harbor.

There are no railroads in Juneau, today's destination, but this town is as elegant as Skagway is skaggy. The weather at this time of year is just as wet but the visit just as charming. I took a “photo safari” to Mendenhall Glacier, one of Alaska's most impressive ice fields, and a boat across the bay to watch bus-sized humpback whales broach and crash in clouds of spray. On the way back we did a close-in drive-by shooting of several bald eagles perched on a rocky outcrop.

The day wound up with a tram ride 1,800 feet up Mount Roberts overlooking Juneau Harbor and a visit to a raptor rescue center there, where I snared a frame-filling head shot of a one-eyed eagle.

Tonight, on to Ketchikan, the ship's last port before entering the Inside Passage.

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