A Whale of a Time

By Ernie Witham   |   August 29, 2019

I was watching an extremely large man from one of the five (yes, five) cruise ships that were in port in Juneau, Alaska. The man was having trouble fitting through the door on a floatplane and two young workers were using their shoulders to gently aid his boarding. The man was wearing black shorts that could have been used as a parasail, and a white shirt that must have had at least three Xs before the L on the size label. 

“I’ll have the orca,” I said.

“Excuse me?” 

I turned to the waiter. “Sorry, I mean the halibut tacos.”

We were at “The Hangar on the Wharf” restaurant where you can watch floatplanes take off and land. There was a line of well-fed tourists waiting to claim one of the plane’s 10 window seats. When full, the planes would taxi out into Gastineau Channel, rev up the engines and accelerate. Many of them bounced along before the whining engines could lift the load. 

“Another beer?” the waiter asked. 

I looked back toward the dock. The man was in and the floatplane was rocking. “Yes, but a light one this time.”

Earlier, we had taken the Mt. Robert’s Tramway 1,800 feet almost straight up to get an overview of Juneau. It’s a small city with a population of 32,000, not counting the cruise ships which can double that number during the height of tourist season, which we were experiencing. “The floor of this tram is quite uneven,” a lady wearing a “Don’t Moose With Me” t-shirt said.

“That’s because you’re standing on my foot,” I said, mostly to the window my face was mashed up against.

At the top, Sally, Pat and I decided to do the “easy .25-mile hike” to Father Brown’s Cross and back. “Wheeze. I think some kid painted in that dot. Wheeze. Surely, we’ve gone twenty-five miles by now.” 

“Look out!” Sally said. In the middle of the path was a pile of bear dung.

“Okay, people, let’s pick up the pace!”

The tram and lunch were great, but now it was time for our biggest adventure – boating out to see the glaciers. “Get comfortable,” the captain said. “Today’s trip to Tracy Arms Fjord and back will take seven hours.”

“Oh man, I should have eaten more.”

“You had all of your lunch and half of Sally’s,” Pat said. 

“There was enough halibut in those tacos to make it a legal catch,” Bob added.

“True but being out on big water works up my appetite.”

“Donut hole?” One of the crew held out a box. It was our second boat ride and both times they had given us donut holes. “When in Alaska…” I said and grabbed a handful.

The boat ride was great. We saw a few bald eagles, and the captain pointed out some houses far from Juneau where people lived off the grid. “No Netflix? Primitive!” Finally, we saw a small iceberg. There was a barrage of clicks, including several from a guy who had a lens so big it must have required its own seat. I moved to a different part of the boat so my lens wouldn’t feel bad.

We passed more icebergs. One of them looked like a fish. We also passed a number of towering waterfalls. “That one is called the hole in the wall,” the captain said, pointing out one that had a hole in the wall.

Finally, we saw the first glacier. It was huge. In front of it were a lot of small icebergs covered with harbor seals. The captain explained that the seals went there to give birth. The water was too murky for predators so they were safe, but there was no food for the seals either, so eventually they had to leave. I pictured a bunch of predators bobbing about wearing bibs just waiting for lunch to come by.

The glaciers were an amazing shade of blue and we spent almost an hour motoring around in front of them. I took hundreds of photos. Then we headed back. 

Suddenly, the boat slowed. I looked out and saw a huge flash of black and white. Had the cruise boat guy fallen out of the floatplane? Nope, this time it was an actual orca. I love Alaska.


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