Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fourteen Days at Sea

Last month, I informed my Twitter and Facebook followers that I would have limited Internet access for an unspecified period. I did not spell out my plans in detail because of concerns for the security of my home.  Now that I have returned, I can clear up my little “mystery.” For fourteen days in June, my wife, Annette, and I were on a cruise to Alaska aboard the Holland-America MS Statendam. The trip was both a vacation and a pilgrimage.  We chose the particular cruise because it included a day in Kodiak, where we lived over 50 years ago and where we rode out the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964.

Annette and I had only taken one cruise before, a voyage around the Hawaiian Islands to mark our fortieth wedding anniversary. We had a ball on that trip and were looking forward to a repeat of many enjoyable experiences. Armed with seasick patches to stick behind our ears, we braved the seas with confidence. Our greatest fear was that we would gain the average of eight extra pounds that most cruisers put on during a voyage. The entire first day out of Seattle was spent on the open sea. We spent the time exploring the ship and getting used to shipboard routine.

Our first day of shore excursions was at Ketchikan, Alaska. After a tour of the town, we visited a museum with many spectacular totem poles. Resident artists demonstrated their techniques. Then we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat feast of Dungeness crabs! Other passengers took floatplane flights over a glacier.  Our next excursions were at Juneau, the Capitol of Alaska. We took a water borne wildlife and whale watching tour, seeing seals, sea lions and a total of seventeen whales. Some were a school of juvenile whales that seemed to be playing games with each other.  We also had a good look at the city and the Alaska government buildings.

After a day cruising near the glaciers in Icy Strait Point, the ship headed for Anchorage. Having visited here in the 1960s, we enjoyed an Anchorage highlights tour. It was interesting seeing how things had changed in the interim. I especially enjoyed a long visit to the Alaska Aviation Museum, where the history of the famous “bush pilots” was documented. I just love old airplanes.

Of course, as all cruisers know, a constant factor of every day of the journey was the almost constant availability of just about any sort of food one can imagine. From formal dinners in the dining room to the hamburger/hot dog stand at the pool, there was no excuse for anyone going hungry. To fill days at sea, there was also a casino, several cocktail lounges with live music, bingo games, a well-stocked library, puzzle tables, and nightly shows. Not to mention the duty free shopping mall with all sorts of luxury items.

Our next port of call was Homer, the first place we landed in Alaska in 1964. After flying 13 hours from Seattle in a Super Constellation, we had to bypass Kodiak because of a blizzard. We spent the night in a log cabin hotel and ate like lumberjacks in a local restaurant.  During the cruise line’s Homer Highlights tour, I was amazed to see both the hotel and restaurant still operating after half a century.

Then came the apex of the trip—Kodiak. We awoke docked next to the emerald green slopes of a mountain. The busy fishing port we remembered was to our right, and beyond it, the town spread over the flats and up the slopes of a hill. The onion dome of the Russian Orthodox Church still stood out against the blue-collar town.  We had to cancel a driving tour of the city because it was postponed. We had more important plans. I had called the former Naval Station, now a Coast Guard Station, earlier and arranged to drive around and look at it. We took a cab from the pier and set out for the base. As we drove along, the scenery appeared just as we remembered it. The crisp lines of Pyramid Mountain marked the middle of the island. Then the slopes of Old Woman Mountain came into view.

The Coast Guard Station occupies the coastal plain at the head of Old Woman Bay.  Originally built as a seaplane base for Navy PBY flying boats, the runways were later lengthened to handle Army B-17s for raids of Japanese occupied Kiska and Attu. As we drove in the gate, I was at once struck by how small everything looked. But the biggest surprise was how little everything had changed in the years since we left. All the family housing was still there, including the little two-bedroom duplex where we lived for over two years. It looks much better now, with vinyl siding instead of the old asbestos shingles we knew. The aircraft hangers and shops appear the same, except that the bright blue and white Coast Guard color scheme is much more cheerful than our old battleship gray. The seaplane parking apron next to the bay was a beehive of activity involving both helicopters and C-130 transports.  Kodiak handles the search and rescue mission for a large swath of the North Pacific and is the largest Coast Guard base in the world.

There were a few depressing moments. The old steam power plant that we labored so hard to restore after the earthquake is now shuttered. Most power for Kodiak now comes from three massive wind turbines atop the central mountain ridge. The shop building from which our Public Works crews toiled to repair broken pipes and power lines appears abandoned, a gray old lady amidst the bright buildings in use.  But overall, our visit was comforting, an affirmation that some things in this world can remain the same for long periods.  Too soon, we had to get back to the ship and steal some time to walk the streets of the city.  As those who watch the television shows, Coast Guard Alaska and The Deadliest Catch, are well aware, Kodiak is still a frontier town.  The people here are a hardy, self-sufficient race.  We did have one more disappointment. We were unable to find the bakery at which we bought many mouth-watering loaves of delicious Russian Rye bread back in the 1960s.

After leaving Kodiak, we witnessed the calving of the blue ice Hubbard Glacier and toured the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in North America at Sitka..  Our final stop was in Victoria, British Columbia. We had planned to attend High Tea at the government headquarters, but that excursion was cancelled because too few signed up. We did tour a lovely private garden constructed by a Georgian royal couple that had survived internment by the Axis in World War Two. Now owned by the British Columbia Land Conservancy, the garden is beautiful and well tended. I gained a bonus when I bought a copy of the princess’s journal of enduring internment in Shanghai from 1941-1945. Is there another novel there?

Our odyssey came to an end abruptly. In a single day, we were transported from the luxury of the ship to our everyday life back in Williamsburg. Arriving home just before midnight of a day that began in British Columbia, it has taken us several days to get our bodies back in Virginia rhythm. But we now have memories that we shall treasure as long as our minds continue to function.

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