The Joy of Cruising How to succeed in seeing Alaska without really trying.

Mendenhall Glacier in Mendenhall Valley, located twelve miles outside of Juneau. (Photo by Gerald Early)

So be my guest, you got nothing to lose.

Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?

—Frankie Ford, “Sea Cruise,” (1959), composed by Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns

 

Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounding Main…

 

 

From July 8 to July 15, I went on a Royal Caribbean Alaskan Cruise with a stop in Victoria, British Columbia. It was my second such cruise. Some years ago, I cannot remember exactly when or what the circumstances were. In other words, how it was arranged. In any case, I accompanied my family including my daughters and in-laws, on a Norwegian Cruise Line jaunt to Alaska with a stop in Vancouver, British Columbia. The cruises were similar in that we stopped in the same places—Juneau, Skagway, Sitka. We disembarked from the same port city, Seattle.

My wife, Ida, won this second cruise, a vacation as it was called, so it turned out to be expensive instead of astronomical, an apt way to describe the first cruise. But what is the point of a vacation except to spend money in an attempt to find relaxation and ease in consumption while taking pictures of strange places that sort of seem like places you have seen? In this instance, they were almost exactly like places I had seen since I had taken this tour before. The main difference was that instead of traveling with a host of relatives, Ida and I were alone. This meant that you are freer to do what you want when you want without having major conferences and unsatisfying compromises that are actually victories for somebody and defeats for someone else. There is also less “rising tension,” as it were, as people grow weary of one another and weary of being away from their routine. But there is comfort and protection with a group and a kind of clique-ish merriment that can make a trip more fun than it actually is, especially when everyone is complaining about the same thing or laughing at the same thing. There is something to be said for the tribal insularity of a family’s culture. Communal smugness and snugness make people feel socially assured, even confident. As the days went by on the second cruise, I began to envy a little people for whom the cruise was a clan gathering.

One reason I do not remember much about the first cruise, some would say, and they are probably partly right, is because I did not take a single photograph. I have almost never taken a photograph on any trip I have ever been on. What I mostly remember, in regard to photos, is being in the way when other people are taking them, and people these days take so many photos with their phones that one might think this is how they make their living or what living is; or being asked to take a photo of some people I do not know and doing it badly. They are always kind and say the photo is fine but then immediately ask someone else to do it.

Communal smugness and snugness make people feel socially assured, even confident. As the days went by on the second cruise, I began to envy a little people for whom the cruise was a clan gathering.

I am not a particularly visual person, so when I visit places, it never occurs to me to take photos of them. I also know that if I take a photo, I will never look at it again. (Since I am such a poor photographer, why, in heaven’s name, would I want to look at them again!) As a traveler, a place has meaning while I am there at the moment, however slight that meaning may be. It is the experience of the moment that matters, not a memory of it, which is what a photograph is. I guess this is called “being in the moment,” or there is some popular psych term for something like it called “mindfulness.” I guess it is what Gurdjieff and Ouspensky called “self-remembering,” being acutely aware of yourself at a particular moment. I do not think I want to be that fanciful or pretentious about my attitude, which is: “Well, I have seen this place now and I suppose I have learned something in being here, I guess. I don’t need to remember that I have seen it. And I don’t need to remember that I have been here. The place has made whatever impression it is intended to make upon me.” I am not beat, just prosaic, maybe even lazy. I did take a couple of photos during this second cruise but only because I knew I would write an essay about it, and readers like pictures. I did not take nearly enough.

Nugget Falls, also known as Nugget Creek Falls or Mendenhall Glacier Falls, at the base of Bullard Mountain in Alaska. (Photo by Gerald Early)

On first seeing Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas, as one goes through the boarding process at the pier, its size dwarfs all sense of what one imagines a mass-market cruise liner to be. It is bigger than the Titanic by roughly 300 feet. There are sixteen decks: it is a floating hotel (nine decks worth of rooms) that also has restaurants, a casino, a shopping mall, bars, and auditoriums for certain mass-appeal acts. There are more than four thousand passengers and, at noon on July 8, many of us thread our way through numerous lines and checkpoints before we are finally given an ID card and permitted to board. A negative COVID test taken forty-eight hours before departure is required as well as other forms, including a passport. Lines move fairly briskly. Travelers have come prepared.

The ship seems cavernous on first entry, but two things happen to blunt that impression: first is realizing the sheer number of people who are on the cruise. Our first day was “a day at sea,” as it is called, no port of call, so everyone is on board. Walking around the decks feels a great deal like finding your gate (forget a seat) at the Southwest Airlines terminal at Lambert Field. There are a lot of people everywhere. Ida and I went to hear a classical guitarist named Jabes perform at a bar called the Schooner. Because the Schooner has only two walls and is not an enclosed room, it is thus a pass-through for people going from one end of Deck five to the other, and because it is, after all, a bar, not a concert venue, the poor guitarist might have had better success busking at rush hour in a New York City subway station. He very much appreciated the six of us who, over the din, applauded his efforts. The second thing is familiarity. As you learn your way around, the ship becomes less and less large. By the end of the voyage, it has not, by any means, become claustrophobic, but it has shrunken in perspective to the size of the average campus building. You have come to know well everything it has to offer the passengers. I felt on the brink of having exhausted it.

I have almost never taken a photograph on any trip I have ever been on. What I mostly remember, in regard to photos, is being in the way when other people are taking them, and people these days take so many photos with their phones that one might think this is how they make their living or what living is.

Fortunately, there were only two days “at sea.” We had ports of call the other days where there were various bus tours available. The weather on the first few days was rainy and cool. I had not come prepared for that, so I had to buy a Royal Caribbean rain parka. I had thought that coming from the intense heat of Las Vegas (we had some days where the temperature soared to 110 or 111 degrees Fahrenheit), I would love the autumnal coolness. Quite the opposite happened: I missed the heat which possessed a sort of clarity and purity for me, a calming effect. I found that I liked the heat which I suppose is easy enough for me to say as I have an air-conditioned home and car and everywhere I go in Vegas is air-conditioned, which means I am dealing with the heat on my terms rather than its terms, as I had to when I was a child without air conditioning in either home or school. (My family had no car and Philly buses were not air-conditioned.) But I liked the heat then, too. Rain? Well, I learned, surprisingly, that Vegas can get its share of that in the summer. Funny to have such violent rainstorms in a place that struggles to find enough water. The wonders of getting water in a desert!

The tour guide/bus driver in Juneau was a young man who looked a little like Giovanni Ribisi and sounded a great deal like filmmaker Ken Burns. This made me more impressed with his patter than I should have been. He pointed out the capital building, high on a hill, where, apparently the governor rarely stays as he would rather be in Anchorage. He told us of the history of the city, named for an undistinguished gold prospector named Joe Juneau and he pointed out bald eagles along the way, as Juneau seemed to have more of them than any place on earth or some such. I got my fill of the birds. Juneau is over 3,200 square miles which means it is nearly seven times the size of New York City but with only a fraction of NYC’s population at 32,255. It is a big but largely empty place, except for its urban core. Our destination is the famous shrinking but beautiful Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Fall. We are instructed when the bus parks that we must walk a one-mile trail to the glacier. On the way back, we can stop at the visitors center and watch a film about the natural history of the glacier. The trail is slippery, greasy, you might say, from the intermittent rain, so we must step lively. There are busloads of people going to the glacier or coming from it as the cruise ships have all come at the same time; the trail is uneven and narrow and made even slicker by the footprints. The glacier and the falls were sights to see! Nature always puts on the best and most terrifying shows on earth. I would have enjoyed it better if it had been sunny. Sunlight would have accentuated the grandeur more. I took a few photos, anyway.

Next day, we go to Skagway, which makes Juneau seem like a major metropolis. There are two buses for this tour. The guide on our bus is a middle-aged blonde woman named Valerie who is a bit more theatrical than our guide in Juneau. She tells us she is thankful for the return of the cruise ships. COVID shutdowns have been hard on the local economy and Ovation of the Seas is among the first of the cruise liners to come back.  (Our guide in Juneau expressed similar gratitude. It is nice that one’s discretionary spending is so deeply appreciated and so ardently missed. However successful this summer season in Skagway will be is still an open question.) On my first Alaska cruise, my family and I took a train ride around Skagway, the most popular tour by far. This time it is a bus tour of a town of less than a thousand people. This being the case, there were only two stops on the tour. The first is a vantage point that offers a view of the entire town. Ida and I took no photos. Everyone else on the bus did. I cannot understand why I do not want photos of this place!

As you learn your way around, the ship becomes less and less large. By the end of the voyage, it has not, by any means, become claustrophobic, but it has shrunken in perspective to the size of the average campus building. You have come to know well everything it has to offer the passengers. I felt on the brink of having exhausted it.

We then proceed to the local cemetery and, on the way, Valerie tells us part of the story of Jefferson Randolph Smith II, a renowned confidence man who built criminal empires in two Colorado towns before plying his craft in Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush. He was known for a con game where he put money inside the wrapping of certain bars of soap, amounts ranging from $20 to $100, with a few $1 bills for good measure, mixed them with bars of soap that had no money and offered them for sale for $5 each. The first few buyers would always win money: $20, $50, or $100. These were his partners who greased the trap for the suckers. Of course, others started to buy the soap and won nothing, sleight of hand being one of Smith’s gifts. This bit of grifting earned Smith the nickname “Soapy.” Smith was a bit more than a con man: he was a crime boss, a racketeer, an octopus. In truth, he controlled Skagway, including running a fake telegraph office. On the night of July 8, 1898, a drunken Smith confronted John H. Reid, one of the men guarding the meeting of the Committee of 101, a law-and-order group (or vigilantes, because Smith had local law enforcement on his payroll) who wanted Smith to return $2,700 in gold he had stolen from a prospector.

When we arrive at the cemetery, Soapy Smith’s grave, fenced off and clearly separated from the rest of the cemetery, is pointed out. Then we all gather around the grave of John H. Reid, with a monument and in the heart of the cemetery, to hear Valerie’s professional partner, the woman who serves as the guide for the other bus who made up this tour, finish the tale, which she does with great dramatic relish. The two men, both armed, got into an altercation. Reid pointed his pistol at Smith, but it misfired. He fired again at the same time as Smith, killing Smith almost instantly. Reid was struck in the groin. At this point, the tour guide grabs her crotch to underscore the severity of the wound. As a man, I am not quite sure whether I was supposed to laugh or cringe, but she seemed delighted with this sly bit of sexual mockery. (I suspect that a woman being shot in the vagina is a severe wound too, and as likely to be fatal at that time.) Reid died of blood poisoning twelve days later, but the tour guide emphasized several times how he suffered not simply from the infection but because of where the bullet struck him. During the telling of this story, I heard at least twice, the tour guides, in describing the population imbalance with men outnumbering women at that time by two-to-one, “The odds were good, but goods were odd.”

After the tour, Ida and I are coaxed into a small theater on Skagway’s main tourist drag, where there are more jewelry stores than anyone could imagine, and watch a modest dramatization of the life of Soapy Smith. Four actors, two women and two men (one of the latter also providing the piano accompaniment) mostly narrated the story with period costumes, padding the proceedings with a number of slightly bawdy, occasionally sentimental bawdy musical performances that the actresses performed with, well, conviction. Here again, I hear the line recited by one of the actresses, “The odds were good, but the goods were odd.” At this point, I thought Skagway might adopt this as the town’s motto and build a statue for Soapy Smith in the middle of the tourist drag. Good gracious, no one has tried to sell me a bar of soap as a lottery ticket. O Skagway, where is thy enterprise? I think Skagway should be renamed Soapy.

If we had shown up only a few days earlier we would have present for the actual anniversary of the famous shootout on Skagway’s wharf, which we were told has been commemorated by Smith’s relatives every year since, apparently, the early 1970s, as Soapy Smith’s wake. For many years, the wake featured the ritual of Smith’s descendants drinking a lot of champagne and then relieving themselves on John H. Reid’s grave. This practice, a bit crude even if Reid was no hero, has been discontinued, a fact I am sure that is appreciated by Reid’s descendants.

Ida Early at Sitka National Historical Park in Alaska. (Photo by Gerald Early)

The following day we take a Native American bus tour (Tribal Tours, it was called) of Sitka, which is a bit bigger than Skagway. Our tour guide/driver is something of folksy, downhome type, who talks incessantly about fishing, which seemed the major industry of Sitka, and about a brother-in-law or perhaps brother who carved totem poles. He shows us a few of them. There are two stops on this tour: the first is Sitka National Historical Park where we are greeted by a Native woman park ranger or certainly dressed like a park ranger. I do not remember her name, but I clearly remember her patter. She began by explaining to us that she was a born-again Christian and accepted Jesus Christ as her lord and savior. This was said not simply assertively but militantly. She continued that her people had been Christian or “followers of the Cross” before Christian missionaries came. Perhaps she wanted to dispel certain cliches or stereotypes about Native Americans: ideas about being one with nature (Christianity is clearly not a nature religion) or talk about a Great Spirit or any such stuff that we simplistically associate with Native Americans. But her fixation with being a Christian, which she mentioned repeatedly throughout our short tour in the park with her, made me think that like so many others in America—during this age of the primacy of identity as the be-all of the self—she was suffering from an identity crisis disguised as extreme identity affirmation. It is an odd but common form of chauvinism these days. Surely, she knew that she could bring more people to Christ through example—if that was her aim—than through self-aggrandizing rhetoric or simply telling people she is a Christian and that she “does not care if anyone is offended.” The thought, though, is that she expected that some people would be offended, and, in a way, the aggressive pronouncement becomes a kind of protection. She tries to fend off being offended and injured by saying she does not care if what she is offends people. There is psychical irony in that. But the profession of Christianity is not an achievement but rather an aspiration. One is not proud to be a Christian but humbled and even burdened by it. She also had to know that no one really cared, or really should care, whether she is a Christian, an atheist, or the devil’s disciple. She is just a tour guide, for heaven’s sake. After her twenty-minute spiel, nearly all of us will forget who she is and what she said. She knew a lot about the flora, the plants, in the park, telling us in the end that she had thyroid cancer but had managed to control or cure it through herbal self-medicating. Then, she abruptly left us in the middle of the park. It is easy to find our way back to the park museum and we see her talking to a new group of pilgrims, introducing herself as a born-again Christian.

During the telling of this story, I heard at least twice, the tour guides, in describing the population imbalance with men outnumbering women at that time by two-to-one, “The odds were good, but goods were odd.”

The second stop is the Tlingit Clan House where we see a Tlingit Tribal Dance performance. A teen-aged girl mumbles her way through her script that describes the dances. I have no idea what they are about, what their significance is. The dances are performed mostly by children. Neither the choreography nor the musical accompaniment is virtuosic, so the dances are not meant to be art experiences showcasing expertise and training. Indeed, at one point in the performance, the audience was invited to join the dancers. The presence of the children makes this feel a bit like watching an elementary or middle school play. The informality of the dances actually makes them opaquer than if they had been high art performances. One child, I think he was a raven, exhibits such exuberance, such serious joy in dancing, that I wind up tremendously liking him as one does a movie hero. I am rooting for him all the way. I do not think I am alone in not understanding the context of the dances so that I could better appreciate them. The audience gives tepid, polite applause of respect, not of admiration or appreciation, when the dances end. The whole thing felt strange and a little confusing. Ida and I did not tour downtown Sitka. We return to the ship, eat lunch, and go to the Schooner for drinks and to hear Jabes’s classical guitar again. This time it is much more enjoyable, as most of the passengers are still out doing tours. I tell Ida I do not want to do a mass-market cruise. I want to own a yacht.

I do not remember much else about the cruise or what I remember is not important. It was nice to get back to the heat in Vegas, true and unrelenting, like the blood coursing in your head. The cruise was nice, not especially restful, and not enough glaciers. (My first Alaskan cruise had many more glaciers, even a shipboard lecture about them.) I am sure there is another way to see Alaska and that is what I intend to do if there is a next time. Repetition has its limitations.

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