Petersburg. No, not that one – this Petersburg is in the Alaska panhandle, south of Juneau, north of Ketchikan. This is the first time in a week there has been any phone signal or internet access; the first time since leaving Juneau almost a week ago that there has been any sort of town in fact. Petersburg is named after its Norwegian founder Peter Buschmann who settled here just over a century ago to found a fish canning business. The town still has a Scandinavian character, with Norwegian-style rose-mailing prettifying its streets.
The Alaska Inner Passage cruise began in Juneau last Friday. Getting to Juneau was fun – taking 34 hours of travel time between leaving my front door in Norwich and checking in seriously jet-lagged at the hotel in Juneau. Three flights, one overnight coach journey, a long layover in Anchorage and at least of couple of hours sitting on runways awaiting permission to take off. The biggest chunk of the travel was the flight between Frankfurt to Anchorage, which instead of flying west across the Atlantic as you might expect, headed almost due north into the Arctic Circle and arced west close to the pole. It is, after all, a three dimensional world and flight routes don’t necessarily follow Mercator’s projection. Flying non-stop Frankfurt to Anchorage takes 9½ hours and because of time zone changes you arrive in Alaska thirty minutes before you left. But, if this was the secret of eternal youth then it certainly did not feel like it.
We flew over Denmark, southern Norway and then the North Sea before curving west over the northern edge of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic to hit the north Alaska coast and pass over the Denali National Park before our descent to Anchorage. Just north of Bergen, the cloud lifted to reveal the glimmering sea beneath us, with little flecks of white that I thought might be fishing boats…or whales. Is it possible to see fishing boats from 36,000 feet up? Like a living atlas unfolding, under the clear blue skies of northern Greenland it was easy to see where solid rock gave way to the pack ice of the North Pole – nothing but mountains, ridges, snow, ice and water beneath. Halfway across Alaska we flew right alongside the peak of Mount McKinley, which loomed proud above the clouds, the highest mountain in the USA, before descending over glorious golden lake country down into Anchorage. I like to think that I saw my first Alaskan bear on the final descent – it may well have just been a rock but it is perfectly feasible.
Once US immigration decided that I was respectable enough to enter their country there was a whole afternoon to kill in Anchorage. I took the local bus into town – a modest grid of low rises against an impressive mountain backdrop, with a handful of shops selling tacky souvenirs in the city centre that advertised their presence with stuffed grizzlies on the sidewalk. These were not the bears I fancied I had seen from the air. The city has something of a frontier feel about it, with small clutches of native Alaskan drunks and shifty-eyed men with baseball caps and ZZ Top beards. A surprising number of blacks and Hispanics too – but perhaps it was my use of public transport that skewed this impression. Public transport in the US tends to be mostly the preserve of the poor and disadvantaged.
Where Anchorage was fairly humdrum, Juneau was pretty and quaint, with wooden houses climbing up steep streets beneath tall bluffs. Anchorage may have been a place that shot and stuffed its bears but Juneau, with its liberal nurturing atmosphere, was a town that seemed more likely to cherish them. Juneau was wet too, pouring that first night with pounding rain that looked as if it would never stop. Thankfully, it did, and the rain was followed by four days of glorious Indian summer sunshine – ‘a bluebird summer’ as they say here.
Since embarking at Juneau last Friday I have experienced the whole gamut of classic southeast Alaska experience: walking in temperate rainforests thick with velvety moss; hikes alongside waterfalls and even on glaciers like that at Baird Glacier yesterday afternoon. There have been hot springs and bald eagles; sea lions, countless orcas and hump-backed whales – one even appeared blowing a steamy plume whilst we were out paddling kayaks. There have been bears too – some black but mostly brown – and a couple of close (but not too close) encounters at forest streams and on beaches where they greedily snatch up migrating salmon from the mouths as streams as easily and as casually as if they were picking flowers.