Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sailing Away, Zipping Away and Salmon Away

M/S Volendam (that dam ship!)
September 7 and 8

Unless you are a Native American or (as the tribes of Northwest America refer to themselves) a member of the First Nation, your predecessors probably came to the New World aboard a passenger ship, freighter or other seaworthy vessel. This traveling by sea is truly in the blood of most Americans, although some travel better than others. The rocking and rolling motion has always been very tranquil and settling to me, but there are many individuals who find it the least likeable part of traveling by sea. I hadn't been at sea in some time, probably close to eight years, but I still found that I had my "sea legs" as the M/S Volendam made her way out towards the Alaska inner passage. I vividly remember sailing aboard the Crystal Harmony on a voyage to China in 1996. Unfortunately, we hit Yeats, one of two typhoons that were blowing in the South China Sea at the end of September. We were heading for Okinawa, after having left Taipai, Taiwan and immediately the boat started rocking and tossing the passengers from side to side. It was so bad that passengers weren't allowed outdoors due to slippery conditions and 40-foot seas with 60-mile-per-hour winds. It was rough. Two passengers suffered broken arms and collarbones. Lots of people, particularly the older travelers, were seasick. But, except for a few little twinges every now and then, I was fine. Eventually, the ship headed straight for Shanghai, the first time that I know that a cruise vessel went from National Republic of China to the People's Republic of China. The cruise on the Volendam was a joke compared to that cruise.

Zipping along the Alaka rainforest canopy in Ketchikan
September 9

We arrived in Ketchikan early in the morning. The excursion tours that were offered by Holland America were varied. Some were strenuous. Some were more inclined toward the sedentary set, where one could simply sit and have the scenery pass in front and along the sides. I decided to take a more adventurous route and elected to enjoy an Alaska Canopy Adventure, specifically the Rainforest Canopy and Zipline Expedition. The route I chose in Ketchikan was a particularly fun and challenging zipline perched 100 feet or so above the rainforest floor. Yes, in case you hadn’t thought about it, Alaska is home to the world’s largest rainforest. Due to deforestation and development, the title formerly held by that rainforest in the Amazon region was taken over by Alaska and the Tongass National Forest a few years ago. Even though one might automatically think of a rainforest as being in a tropical environment, it does not have to be. In the case of Alaska’s temperate rainforest, much of it is protected by federal law. It is home to significant numbers of bears (brown, black and grizzly) and is the spawning grounds for a huge expanse of salmon. My zipline adventure consisted of eight runs, one of which was over 700 feet across the forest top. The fastest of the runs had participants reaching speeds of near 35 miles-per-hour. There is nothing to describe the sheer beauty of peering out from perches high above the forest floor where sightings of bears and creeks filled with salmon are common. The Alaska Rainforest Canopy and Zipline Expedition, which also included three suspended bridges, took over an hour and a half to compete. Once we reached terra firma again, we were presented with Olympic-style gold medals signaling that we had finished our tour. Later that afternoon I had a chance to tour uncharacteristically sunny Ketchikan. Ketchikan is home to 7,000 inhabitants with cruise ships bringing in as many tourists as locals most summer days. It is also home to a multitudinous amount of spawning salmon, which can readily be seen moving against streams that run through the center of “Alaska’s First City.” The history of the town is as colorful as its buildings with a historic red light district near the center. One building is dedicated to Dolly, the most well-known madam of the town. Those Alaskan nights get to be pretty chilly, so I can understand the need to share…er… uh…bodily warmth.

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