Cruising Alaska

Published 9:46 am Monday, April 10, 2017

by James D. Howell

Our train slows to a slow rumble as we approach the rails’ end in Seward. This siding ends at the welcome and boarding center for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. We’re headed south, with a number of stops along the way.

The Alaskan Rail trip was a serendipitous delight. We were expecting a bus shuttle between the check-in at Anchorage and the departure port of Seward. Instead, the bus ride was short — only from the Convention Center to the train station. We’ve had a cloudy, partially rainy look at spectacular scenery along the rails in backwoods territory, and now we check in for the cruise.

It’s a well-rehearsed process, with multiple lines and abundant help with the mundane chores of passports and registration. Our luggage was checked in Anchorage and will show up in our stateroom. I’m always a little skeptical about leaving luggage anywhere, but these people exude confidence from many years experience in the cruising industry. We climb the ramp and follow directions to our home for the next seven days.

The room is tidy, not cramped but filled with utility. Everything from bathroom essentials to life preservers occupy their designated space. We notice that a welcome message is on our TV, not just generic but with our names front and center. These people really know how to treat guests. We get things sorta fixed in our brains and head out for a brief look at the ship before departure in an hour or so; I want to be outside by the rail when we get underway. It’s a tradition.

Another ship is in port alongside us. We can hear their public announcements as well as ours. We observe their abandon ship drill in progress. The drill is required sometime in the first 24 hours of a cruise, either in port or underway. Ours will be before departure, also.

The Port of Seward is set at Resurrection Bay, the end of the long estuary. An airport, rail tracks and a large, active fishing and boating harbor anchors the estuary to the mountains. This harbor was mostly destroyed during the major earthquake in 1964. Most of what is visible today is new construction, including landfill.

It’s a little foggy today and promises to become more so tonight; we’ll be underway and sleeping for the most part. For now, I love the misty, calm atmosphere at the base of a mountain range. The world seems to be at peace.

We show up for dinner at the appointed time and meet our fellow travelers. We’ll have the same table mates and waiters for the duration. They seem to be a happy, active bunch and we look forward to dinner table stories as the cruise progresses.

Overnight, we’ve traveled some 300 miles to the mouth of Icy Bay. We slow to a crawl and welcome aboard a native guide who will give a running commentary of the area, the native inhabitants and short description of life in the remote wilderness along the shore. We listen semi-attentively, and head for breakfast. It’ll take another hour or so to travel the 20 miles to the face of Hubbard Glacier. It’s a bright beautiful day and Mount St. Elias is readily visible. Normally, along this coast, low-hanging clouds block the view.

We are noticeably slower on this part of the journey; smaller blocks of ice pass on both sides. They calve from the glaciers further up the bay. On the bow, we can see the ice face at a great distance. The captain turns the ship broadside to massive wall of ice, and heaves to, silencing the ship’s engines.

We can hear the glacier “talking.” Pops and crackles from distant reaches of the glacier and from the face, drift to our ears. It’s late morning and some small calving is occurring along the bright blue wall. Conversations around us quiet to a hush in reverence of the moment. We stand down in a brilliant ice world, mesmerized.

The captain turns the ship and presents the view from the other side. Balconies and side rails are filled with people, guests and crew alike. I’m told that this is a rare day; on the journey north, the ship could not visit this glacier because of weather. I feel blessed.

The ship moves along the face in the opposite direction to a cut through the wall. An imprisoned lake broke through the wall a couple of years ago and left a beautiful striated wall at the break. It is starkly stunning.

We leave as slowly as we arrive, taking care to not disturb the placid waters.

Our dinner table is filled with chatter. Sleep comes easy. I know we’ll wake up another 300 miles south at Juneau.                      

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at