Wednesday, September 22, 2021

To the Last Frontier

 This guest post is by Dave Tindell.


    It's called the Last Frontier. Alaska, the country's 49th state, its biggest by far in terms of land area, but third-smallest when it comes to population. I'd never been there, so when Sue suggested some months back that we take advantage of Princess Cruises' offer to send us there on one of their ships as the cruising season re-opened, I quickly said yes.
    Like a lot of places dependent on tourism, Alaska had a rough 2020 thanks to the COVID pandemic. It looked like 2021 was going to be better, until neighboring Canada declared that it would not allow ships of 100 or more passengers to enter its waters. One might think that would be no problem; Alaska-bound liners always launch from American ports like Seattle, but thanks to an obscure 19th-century law, most of these were required to make a stop in Canada along the way. For many years, that wasn't a problem; the lines' customers certainly didn't mind spending a pleasant day in the Canadian city of Vancouver or exploring the offshore island of the same name, which is home to the famed Butchart Gardens. Sue and I had visited both on previous trips. 
    But with Canada now having closed its borders to all but the smallest American-based cruise ships, and not even allowing the ships to simply float in their waters for a few hours, it looked like Alaska might suffer another devastating tourist season. Alaska's congressional delegation--which consists of three people--wasn't about to go down without a fight, though, and they were successful. Congress unanimously passed a new law suspending that portion of the old one that required a Canadian stop, and when President Biden quickly signed it into law, the cruise lines swung into action. The season, delayed by about three months, got underway in late July. We would be on one of the first ships to bring visitors back to the ports which had so desperately missed them in 2020. 

Saturday, Aug. 7 -- to Seattle

    We left our home in northwest Wisconsin on the morning of Saturday, August 7, bound for the Minneapolis airport with a 4pm flight to Seattle waiting for us. We would spend one night in the city and then board the Majestic Princess the next morning, returning on the 15th. The drive over was routine, and we reached our gate at the Minneapolis airport without incident. Then we had an incident. Sue checked our documents and discovered that her passport had expired. How could that be, I asked. The answer was, she had indeed renewed it on time a few years ago, but kept the old one, and that was the one she snatched out of our file cabinet when she was preparing our documents. 
    After a few somewhat-frantic phone calls, she concluded that it was likely she wouldn't be allowed on the ship tomorrow. I asked another seemingly-logical question: since we're not setting foot in a foreign country, why do we need passports anyway? Well, the cruise line has always required them because of the Canada stop, and now, even though Canada's not on the itinerary, it will be again someday, so evidently they decided to just keep the passport requirement active. Not wanting to take chances, Sue changed her flight to a 9:30 departure, drove back home to get the correct passport, and I traveled on to Seattle alone.
    The airports at both ends were busy, and keeping with federal regulations, masking was required all the way. Everybody seemed to be in compliance and there were no incidents. When I arrived in Seattle, I retrieved both of our bags and made my way to the hotel we'd booked, the Seattle Airport Hilton. With nothing much else to do, I had a quiet dinner in the hotel restaurant and hit the hay, knowing Sue would awaken me when she arrived sometime during the night. She made her re-scheduled flight easily and it was about 2am local time when she arrived. We had a 6am wakeup call, so it was a short night for all concerned. But at least she knew now that she'd be able to board the ship. A lesson learned, and I gently suggested that from now on, she should keep her old passport at the back of the file instead of the front. 

Sunday, Aug. 8 -- Boarding the Majestic Princess

    This would be our first cruise in several years, and right away we noticed some significant changes. One was that each arriving passenger was applauded by a group of happy-to-see-us crew members, which was nice. Another was that the mandatory lifeboat drill was now pretty much a virtual event. Cruise liners must prepare for the worst, of course, and even though a liner requiring passengers to abandon ship is an extremely-rare event--the last was the Italian liner Costa Concordia in early 2012--drills must still be held after all passengers have boarded. But this time, instead of putting on our life jackets and meeting at one of several muster stations throughout the ship (each cabin has a designated station) we just had to visit the station at our convenience shortly after boarding, and then watch a video on our cabin's TV or on our phones.
    Ah, yes, the phones. Princess Cruises has gone all-in on smartphone tech, and through its app, we could now do wondrous things: see a map of each deck, check daily activities, sign up for said activities, play games, order food or drinks, and even track the whereabouts of "shipmates" on board. All of these would prove to be very useful throughout the cruise. That was the upside. The downside was that many passengers seemed to be constantly on their phones during the cruise. Ship-wide WiFi was, of course, offered for no charge. 
    Princess also provided each passenger with a medallion before the cruise. This medallion, which came in a plastic holder with a lanyard, was to be kept on your person all the time, and with it you could open your cabin door, check your personalized schedule on any of the many monitors throughout the ship, and more. Many passengers availed themselves of the option to wear their medallion on a wristband or as a pendant, and Princess craftily provided a station that sold wristbands and pendants, doing brisk business early in the cruise. Sue kept hers in its original container, but I got myself a wristband for mine. 

The medallions are a Princess innovation that
could wind up revolutionizing cruising.

    Masks were required to be worn on board at all times, except when in your cabin or out on the open deck. Masks were optional in the fitness center, which is always a popular place for us when we cruise, and we quickly discovered few people would wear masks while working out. Social-distancing was not required; people gathered in groups, large and small, throughout the ship as always. 
    Even though we hadn't cruised in some time, it didn't take long to get back into the swing of things. The first thing we like to do is explore the ship, and this is a challenge in the beginning, because everybody else wants to do that, too. You want to orient yourself when it comes to where your cabin is and where other important locations are: the restaurants, the theater, the fitness center, the bars. And on cruise lines, bars are everywhere. Majestic Princess has six restaurants, plus three diner-style serving areas where you could walk up, get food and drinks and sit wherever you might like in the big midships atrium, if you were patronizing the International Cafe, or the main deck, which had one station that served burgers and another that offered oriental soups. I didn't even bother to count the number of bars, but you were never very far from one, and if you didn't feel like actually going to one, you could use your phone to order drinks brought right to your location, whether it was your cabin or a chair on deck. 
    One thing that hadn't changed was the wide variety of activities available to passengers. From 8am Bible studies to classical music in the atrium to movies under the stars, almost everything imaginable was being offered. Except dancing; a staple of cruises pre-COVID, dancing was one of the activities not to be found on board, except in performances by the ship's entertainment troupe on stage. 
    We retired early, looking forward to a day at sea tomorrow as we sailed north. Alaska was just over 24 hours away.

Monday, Aug. 9 -- at sea

   In the early morning we passed the coast of British Columbia, the closest we would be allowed to Canada. We waved as we went by. No doubt many businesses in Vancouver would've waved sadly back.  

   Sue and I passed the day pleasantly, exploring the ship and the Medallion app. I availed myself of the extensive salon for a haircut and shave, then joined Sue in the Hollywood Conservatory at the bow of the ship, which would be one of our favorite hang-outs on board.

    Every cruise has a ping-pong tournament, and I enter every time. The tables were out on deck, and with the weather cold and occasionally rainy, it wasn't the best conditions, even though the tables were enclosed on the sides to cut down the wind. Out of the 32 passengers who entered, I made it to the 2nd round before falling. But we were told there'd be another one on Saturday, our final day at sea, so I looked on this event as a warm-up. At the very least it was entertaining to watch the contestants from California, who were suffering mightily with the weather.                                                                                                                                                          We dined in the large buffet restaurant, World Fresh Marketplace, which in a sign of increased hygiene was not allowing passengers to grab their own food from the serving trays. This caused some veteran cruisers more than a little consternation, based on what we observed; they weren't able to load up their plates as they might've done before. They could deal with masks and other restrictions, but we thought forced portion-control might just cause a mutiny. Fortunately, they discovered that with multiple trips to the serving lines, they could eat just as much as they used to do.                                                                                                    As we turned in that evening, we were excited about the next day, and our arrival in Alaska.

Tuesday, Aug. 10 -- Juneau

   Our first sight of Alaska on Tuesday morning was through rain and clouds, which we were told is quite normal for this time of year. 

   Our ports of call would be confined to the Alaska panhandle, that portion of the state that extends to the southeast, down the western coast of Canada. The first stop would be in Juneau, the state capital, and like so much of this state, it is unique in many respects. It's the only state capital that doesn't have a dome on its Capitol building. It's the only capital city that cannot be accessed by road; Juneau and its environs have only 190 miles of paved roads, and none of them extend more than a few miles outside of the city limits along the coast. It's impossible to drive to Juneau from anywhere else in Alaska, much less from the "lower 48." In terms of population, Juneau has about 33,000 residents, second-smallest for a U.S. state capital; only Pierre, S.D., is smaller. 
    But in terms of land area, Juneau is big; at 3,255 square miles, Juneau is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. It is also one of the most-wired capitals in the country, allowing residents in the far-flung state to keep tabs on their governor and legislators. Quite likely it is the most-visited of any state capital; in a normal year, nearly a million visitors will spend at least a day here, almost all arriving by cruise ship. 
    On the way in, we watched for whales. Our cabin was on the starboard side, so when the first call of "Thar she blows, port side!" came over the ship's loudspeakers, we went over to a viewing area on that side and waited. But the whales must have known we were coming, because they vanished.

   We approached Juneau through the Inland Passage, some 900 miles north of Seattle. Pretty soon, we saw signs of human habitation.


On a clear day, this is how Juneau appears to arriving cruise liners.
(Princess Cruises photo)

   We came into port and disembarked. Shore activities, based on what we'd found on the Princess website, were plentiful and varied. We'd signed up for ours online some weeks in advance of the cruise, a big change from the usual scramble on board at the excursion desk as passengers would jostle for the most popular outings. Our choice was a bicycle tour of the outskirts of Juneau and the nearby Mendenhall Glacier. Even though it was raining lightly, we were provided with appropriate gear and headed out with about a dozen other intrepid bicyclists.

We began our ride outside a charming log chapel, a block from the campus of
the University of Alaska-Southeast.

All geared up and ready to roll on late-model Trek bikes.

We'd stop a couple times so our guides could
point out interesting flora and fauna. Juneau
is in the middle of the Tongass National Forest,
the largest in the country, and the largest rain
forest in North America, at 16.9 million acres.

After a walk through the soggy, mossy forest, we beheld Mendenhall
Glacier, across the lake of the same name. It's 13.6 miles long and
only 12 miles from downtown Juneau, which makes Juneau the
only state capital that has a glacier for a neighbor. We had arrived
at the lakeshore just as another group of tourists was embarking
on what appeared to be a rather precarious canoe trip across the lake.

The glacier has been retreating for over a century. This spot marks
its extent in 1910. Our guides told us that climate change is
accelerating the glacier's retreat, which has reached about 2.5 miles
since its peak in the mid-18th century.

The guide asked if anybody wanted to get a romantic picture
with the glacier in the background, so of course we volunteered.

We biked around the southern shore of the lake and visited the
Forest Service Visitors Center (the first such visitor center in
the nation), giving us an even better view of the glacier
and nearby Nugget Falls. 


   Somewhat damp but feeling that pleasant fatigue that accompanies a good bike ride, we headed back to downtown Juneau, where our guides treated us to a beer-tasting at Merchant's Wharf. Sue and I strolled back to the ship, checking out some of the town's shops. On the way to the start of the bike tour, we'd passed by the Walmart, which we were told is the second-smallest in the U.S. On the day it opened a few years ago, eager shoppers cleaned out every shelf. The store re-stocked overnight and the next day, same thing. This time, the doors had to stay closed for a week until supplies arrived by barge, which is how almost everything gets to Juneau. 
    Our first day in Alaska had been a good one. We dined that evening at one of the ship's specialty restaurants, the Crown Grill, and talked about our next port of call. On Wednesday, we'd arrive in Skagway, a town famed as one of the jump-off points for the legendary Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. 

Wednesday, Aug. 11 -- Skagway

   In August of 1896, northwest Canada and Alaska were a vast wilderness, populated only sparsely by mostly Native American bands and a few hardy Canadian and American trappers and hunters. A few of them thought there just might be gold in the streams and rivers, similar to what had been discovered in California half a century before. Keish, a member of the Tlingit and Tagish band, along with a Native woman named Shaaw Tlaa and a white man from California, George Carmack, were panning for the precious metal on Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory. Carmack filed the first claim and it didn't take long for word to get around locally. 
    But word didn't travel too fast in those days beyond the immediate vicinity, especially in a place where there were no roads, no telegraph lines and certainly no telephones. It was well into 1897 before enough interest was generated in the Lower 48 and settled Canada to spur gold-seekers, and spur them it did. The Klondike Gold Rush was on.
    Skagway, at the northern terminus of the Inland Passage, was the jumping-off point for gold-rushers making their way to the Klondike. Coming up the Passage from Vancouver or Seattle was the fastest way to the gold fields, although others chose more circuitous routes. Taking the sea route up to Skagway was relatively easy, until they got to the frontier town and saw what was ahead of them.

Skagway went from a frontier town of about 1,000 people
living mostly out of tents to a bustling city of 10,000
almost overnight.

The Golden Staircase, leading over Chilkoot Pass, was one
of many daunting challenges facing gold "stampeders"
who dreamed of becoming rich.

The same view of Broadway in Skagway as in the photo
above, with a cruise ship in port. 

    Some months back, Sue and I had watched the movie The Call of the Wild, the latest screen adaptation of Jack London's classic novel, about an intrepid dog who is captured by rustlers and brought to Alaska to pull sleds for stampeders. Buck escapes his captors, spends an exhilarating several months on a team of dogs pulling a mail sled. When the route is shut down he gets his freedom and is befriended by an old gold-panner, John Thornton (played by Harrison Ford), and the two of them find a remote river which proves to be a bonanza. But along the way, both Buck and John discover there are things more important than gold. 
    The film gives us a vivid portrayal (almost all computer-generated) of Klondike-era Alaska and the hardships faced by the stampeders, not to mention the challenges they faced in dealing with swindlers and assorted other questionable characters. Recalling the film (I was surprised it wasn't being shown on the ship's movie channel, or on deck on the big screen) gave us an informative backdrop to our own exploration of Skagway.

Our visit to Skagway wasn't quite as adventurous as Buck's was
in the novel and movie, but it was interesting and a lot of fun.

    Our excursion today would be an adventurous one indeed: rock-climbing and rappelling. As per usual on these jaunts, we would have a small but intrepid group. Our guides met us at the pier where we disembarked and soon we were on our way to the climbing spot, several miles outside of town. Unlike Juneau, there are roads out of Skagway leading to other communities. Well, basically just two: one leads south along Taiya Inlet to the town of Haines, the other north into Canada. Whitehorse, the territorial capital of the Yukon, is about 109 miles from Skagway. Six hours north from Whitehorse is Dawson City, near the famed gold fields. What would take the stampeders weeks to travel can now be done in a day, or a couple hours, if you want to hop on a plane. 

Disembarking at Skagway. The ship was pretty organized
and people got down the gangways in good order.

The Majestic Princess was only the second liner to reach
Skagway in the delayed cruise season. 

At the rock wall a few miles outside of town, we geared up
for our climbs. 

The climbing surfaces ranged from
40 feet to about 75, and there 
was only one direction: straight up.

After our climbs, which were strenuous but invigorating,
we hiked up a switch-backed trail to the top, where we
prepared to rappel down. 

Here I am, preparing to come down,
Sue went down first. Our experience
rappelling in Belize in 2019 sure
came in handy.

On the way down, another example of
Alaska's amazing flora: laetiporus
an edible fungus known
as "chicken of the woods" due to its

After our climb and rappel, we were brought back to town and
began to explore downtown Skagway. They've done a great job in 
preserving the town's Klondike-era flavor--with modern
conveniences, of course, including paved streets.

Sue takes a look in one of the many shop windows. 

A Klondike-era barroom is recreated in a museum.

The Red Onion Saloon was closed
today, unfortunately. Now a bar and
restaurant, it was one of Skagway's most
notorious brothels in the 1890s, 
with ten "cribs" on the second floor.
Prostitutes who worked the Red Onion
and other Alaska bawdy houses often
made more money than women in
more respectable professions, such
as cooks and laundresses. 

In Alaska, totem poles were a common sight, like here alongside 
a store. Commonly thought to be religious structures, they're 
actually built to commemorate ancestors, legends, and 
even repositories for the remains of the deceased. 

     The weather had chosen to let up on this day; although it was overcast, at least it wasn't raining. After not doing any real shopping in Juneau the day before, we started to think about our traditional search for native artwork to bring home. A totem pole would be kind of nice, I thought, but we decided to wait until our last day ashore, two days hence in Ketchikan, where Sue said the shopping would be better. We returned to the ship and had a nice evening, highlighted by a show in the ship's main theater featuring an ethnic Vietnamese Irishman (you read that right) named Naathan Pham, a very talented magician and singer. 
    We'd be at sea again the next day, voyaging back down Taiya Inlet to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, 3.3 million acres of some of the most pristine wilderness in the United States.

Thursday, Aug. 11 -- Glacier Bay

    It's not that far of a cruise from Skagway, at the northern end of Taiya Inlet, to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Majestic Princess took its sweet time, allowing us to see more of the scenery of Alaska's panhandle. We emerged from Taiya at the tip of the eastern peninsula of land that helps form Glacier Bay. Now into the Icy Strait, we passed the hamlet of Gustavus, which is home to about 450 hardy souls as well as visitors who come by light plane or boat from Juneau to explore the wilderness. (There are no roads outside the immediate vicinity of the town.) We then swung to the north, entering the bay.
    The facts and figures about Glacier Bay don't really do it justice, but it's a good way to start. Proclaimed a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925, it was expanded by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and again two years later. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve. Today, the park and preserve cover over 5,000 square miles, with another 4,300+ square miles designated as a wilderness area.
    The park's tallest peak is Mount Fairweather at 15,300 feet. Despite being inaccessible by road, the park and preserve are visited by over half a million people annually, the great majority arriving on cruise ships. This volume of seaborne traffic requires a delicate balance of navigation among the cruise lines, as no more than two ships are allowed in parts of the bay at any one time, and a ship can stay there only for a few hours. The environmental rules in the bay are so strict that the ship's coffee shop could not serve any beverages in paper containers during the time we were there, so as to discourage people from tossing empty cups overboard. 

Approaching the entrance to Glacier Bay.

As we entered the bay, everyone was hoping the weather
would break long enough for us to get the full effect of the scenery.

On deck, dressed for the weather, with a glacier behind us.

The closest we got to Margerie Glacier, one of seven
tidewater glaciers in the bay. It was interesting to see little
ice floes in the water on this early-August day.

    The park has over a thousand documented glaciers, but only seven of them are the "tidewater" variety, which flow through valleys to the ocean. We floated around for a few hours at the northern end of Glacier Bay, in Tarr Inlet near Margerie, which is 21 miles long, a mile across at the waterline and with a maximum thickness of 350 feet. While five of the park's tidewater glaciers are receding, Margerie has remained stable in recent decades and Johns Hopkins is advancing. Margerie may be stable, but that doesn't mean it's motionless; movement of some 6 feet per year has been measured in recent years.  
    Everyone was waiting to see a "calf" from the glacier. That's when part of the glacier splits away from the main body and plunges into the ocean, due to tension within the ice caused by the glacier's forward advance. The result is an iceberg, some of which can be huge--they've been documented to be as large as the state of Rhode Island. With some 90 percent of the iceberg underwater, they can be serious navigational hazards, as the Titanic found out one tragic night in 1912. 
    While we heard some explosive sounds that might've indicated calving, we didn't see any falling away from the glacier. Possibly the sounds came from a nearby glacier, Grand Pacific. By early afternoon we began our exit from the bay. The overcast skies had kept us from getting a real good view of the mountain ranges, but this picture shows them very well, and gives the viewer a good perspective regarding their size: that little boat in the lower right is a cruise liner. 

    It had been a good day on board, even if the viewing wasn't the best, we didn't see any calving and once more, the whales seemed to be avoiding us. We dined for the third time on the cruise at Alfredo's Pizzeria, one of the busiest restaurants on board, with a lot of take-out orders. After dinner we took in the 7pm show, "Encore," in the theater. The ship's very talented singers and dancers took the stage along with the week's guest soprano, Barbi McCulloch, and it was another first-rate show. 
    Like every cruise we've ever been on, there are activities throughout the evening and into the wee hours, but we've always been early-to-bed, early-to-rise folks. We turned in after the show, looking forward to the next day, our final stop in Alaska to see the village of Ketchikan and do some sea kayaking. 

Friday, Aug. 12 -- Ketchikan

    Located at the southern end of Revillagigedo Island at the entrance to the Inland Passage, Ketchikan has a colorful past that's tied to the Klondike era, like almost every little hamlet or fair-sized town in the panhandle of Alaska. With 8,050 residents, Ketchikan is the fifth-largest city in Alaska; by comparison, Wisconsin's fifth-largest city is Racine with 76,130. Another 5,000 or so residents live on the island. One thing Ketchikan shares with many Wisconsin towns is an historical connection to Native peoples. Here, the Tlingit people lived for centuries, and their language is the source of the creek that runs through the town and lends its name to the community. 
    The weather had finally broken and we had a spectacular view of Ketchikan and its environs as we sailed to our port, often buzzed by seaplanes. The good weather was truly a stroke of luck; Ketchikan is the third-wettest city in the U.S., averaging 153 inches of rain per year. The two towns ahead of Ketchikan on this dubious list are both in Alaska, Whittier and Yakutat.

Approaching Ketchikan, we finally got a good feel for
the scenery.

As we sailed slowly toward our pier, seaplanes buzzed
us from their berths.

Taking advantage of the weather, many of the passengers
joined us on deck.

Sue was glad to be on deck without having to bundle up.

We came ashore and joined up with our kayaking group, which
transported us by van to their camp on the shore to the north
of town. This school, we were told, was in use until very

Our kayaks awaited us. It didn't take long and we were seaborne.

Sue and I have done a lot of canoeing on our lake, but
not much kayaking. I took the front berth, with Sue in back
working the rudder, and away we went.

Along the rocky shoreline, we saw a large number of starfish,
literally left hanging at low tide. 

We paddled out into the sound and circled Clover Island, 
uninhabited by humans. It's popular with deer, we're told;
pregnant does will swim out here to have their fawns, because
the island has no predators. When the youngster is strong enough,
mother and child will swim back to the main islands on either side.

On the far side of Clover, a place that serves as a coming-of-age
spot for Ketchikan teenagers, according to our guide, a high
school senior herself.

In a cove on one side of Clover, we were visited by this seal, 
soon joined by a similarly-curious companion.

After the kayaking, we were bused back downtown to 
begin our exploration of Ketchikan, which was glad to see us.

Behind us, the ship loomed large over the town. Ketchikan
may be small, but it has two ZIP codes, and one of them (99950)
is the highest in the nation, according to the Postal Service. 
Tourism is a huge part of the area's economy; in 2018, 
over a million visitors came to Ketchikan on cruise ships.

Ketchikan Creek flows swiftly
through town, and we saw several
salmon, struggling mightily 
to get upstream. Ketchikan
bills itself as the "Salmon Capital
of the World." 

The entrance to Creek Street, the Klondike-era red-light district.
A city ordinance banned brothels from the main business district
in 1903, relegating them to "Indian Town" on the east shore
of the creek. Due to the steep slope, the buildings had to be
built on stilts. 

Dolly's House, a former brothel
now maintained as a museum. 
Prostitution was legal here until 1954,
tolerated for a half-century because
it drew men, and their money, to the

The other end of Creek Street, which is now listed on the
National Register of Historic Places. Alaskans told us that
the Klondike-era towns were "where salmon and men
came to spawn."

Ketchikan has the world's largest
collection of standing totem poles.

    It was time for us to fulfill our traditional obligation of bringing home some native artwork from our destination, and since we would be leaving Alaska that evening, we didn't have much more time to waste. Fortunately, we found an arts and crafts store in the downtown district and bought a nice 18" totem pole, locally-crafted, we were assured. As the proprietor was checking us out, he asked where we were from. "Wisconsin," we said, and he asked, "Do you know where Burnett County is?" It's one county over from ours, we said, whereupon the gent told us that he used to live in Siren, which is about a forty-mile drive from our house. 
    It had been perhaps our best day yet in Alaska, thanks to the weather, but we were ready to start for home. We boarded the Princess and had a fine dinner at the Harmony Restaurant, serving Oriental fare, and we had a nice laugh when the couple at the next table, from Olympia, Wash., said they were all packed and had their bags out already. They were convinced we were departing the ship in Seattle the next morning. No, we said, we have a day at sea. The family at the next table--from the Milwaukee area, of all places--confirmed it, but the Olympia couple didn't concede until the waitress nodded solemnly when they asked her if we were not arriving in Seattle till Sunday. 
    Showtime that evening in the main theater was a great show featuring Andrew Diessner, a Colorado-born singer who showed a vocal range from opera to rock. We retired early once again, looking forward to our next day, which would be at sea as the ship made its final 770-mile run to Seattle. 

 Saturday, Aug. 13 -- at sea, heading south

    Another sea day awaited us for our final day on Majestic Princess. The weather was a little better, chilly but at least not raining (at least constantly), and so we were able to spend a little time out on the deck. There would usually be one or two couples in the hot tubs flanking the main pool, regardless of the weather, although I suspect these folks weren't from the Sun Belt. We ran into a few people from Arizona and southern California who weren't thrilled with the weather at all, evidently not having done much research into what Alaska is like in August. 
    There was another ping-pong tournament, and I was determined to do better than I had in the previous event. You find out early in these shipboard tournaments that if an Asian gent shows up with his own paddle, almost always in a customized leather case, everybody is playing for second place. So it was with some trepidation that I met an Asian gent (but without a paddle) at the tables about a half-hour before the tournament. We had both showed up, it turned out, to get in a little practice. So we played a best-of-five series, and it went the distance. My longer reach proved to be the decisive factor, and I got myself a satisfactory win. Afterwards, we chatted. He was born in Vietnam, he said, and his father had been an officer in the South Vietnamese army. The family managed to escape before the communists overran the country in 1975 and made their way to southern California, where he now works in real estate. 
    When the competition began, it was almost an entirely different lineup than what I'd seen six days earlier. Still formidable, though. I made it to the quarterfinals, and then lost to a college student from California. He in turn lost his semifinal match to a senior citizen from Texas, who wound up beating a California teen in the final.

In the final, the Texas gent frustrated his young opponent
by playing a very fundamentally-sound game, then finished
him off with a pair of wicked serves for aces. Age and guile
beats youth and exuberance once again. 

Before and after the ping-pong, it was a day to take it
easy. Sue and I had been taking our breakfast at the
International Cafe and enjoying the Atrium, the multi-
level open space amidships that frequently had musical
performers to keep us company.

We got in another workout at the very fine fitness center. I 
met a couple from Italy who had been stranded in Seattle
for a year and a half; they'd come to the US for work in
early 2020 and weren't allowed to go back home, thanks
to government COVID restrictions. They were not happy
about that, although they were enjoying the cruise.

The Hollywood Pool, enclosed near the bow of the
ship. We used the hot tub at the far end one time and
had an interesting conversation with a Seattle couple
who filled us in on the alarming state of their city's
crime and homelessness. They asked us how things
are in our neck of Wisconsin, and we had to admit
that things are really pretty nice. 

On the way to the Crown Grill, one of the specialty
restaurants we dined at during the cruise. The
ship's throughways were very pleasant and offered
many little nooks and crannies for people to relax
with cards, a board game or a book...and, of course,
the ubiquitous phones. 

One of the ship's many bars, this one a level above the 
International Cafe in the atrium.

While at sea, the ship's stores are open, as is the casino. 
Like every cruise we've ever been on, jewelry was prominent
among the items offered. 

The World Marketplace buffet, an airy place where we had
lunch a couple times, and then dinner on our last night aboard.

    After dinner, we went to the theater for one final show, featuring all three of the cruise's guest performers in a slam-bang conclusion to the week's entertainment. For good measure, after the show we headed to one of the smaller clubs for a game show that was hilarious, featuring three of the ship's talented personnel. 
    All in all, a satisfying last day on board. We retired knowing that we'd had a good time, but we were ready to come ashore and head for home. The next day would be a long one, but we'd end it in our own bed.

Sunday, Aug. 14 -- ashore in Seattle and home

    We came into port shortly after dawn, and everybody was anxious to depart. We'd packed our bags the night before and put them outside our cabin before retiring, and by the time we got up they'd been whisked away. Departure day on a cruise is not a day for last-minute packing to be done; if you don't have those bags out when they say, it's not going to go well. But everybody seemed to be in the swing of things, and pretty soon we were off the ship and waiting for transportation to the airport. 

As usual, the cruise line had everything well-organized as we
departed the ship and got ready for the drive to SeaTac.

   Our flight to Minneapolis was uneventful, as was our drive from the airport to our home. Everything was quiet and intact when we arrived, and we started feeling reverse jet-lag right away. The three-hour time difference from Wisconsin time to Alaska had been a little more jarring than we thought it would be, and now we had to do it in reverse. At least the ship had been back on Pacific time for the last day at sea, so it wasn't quite as bad as it could've been.
    Our trip to Alaska was fun and even with the substandard weather, we enjoyed ourselves. The great majority of our fellow passengers seemed to feel the same way. Even with the annoying restrictions like masks--and there seemed to be a few more unmasked rebels in the hallways every day--people enjoyed themselves.
     I'd like to visit Alaska again, perhaps this time getting to Anchorage and perhaps all the way to Fairbanks. Maybe do some inland exploring, things a little more adventurous than sailing on a ship. We'll see. In the meantime, Sue and I are looking forward to our next cruise, which will be to the Caribbean in November. As the cruise industry continues to recover from the pandemic, we'll be making more plans to sail in 2022 and beyond. Maybe we'll see you on board!