Isn't Alaska, like, cold ?

This year, to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, Margaret and I decided to take an Alaskan cruise. We knew we didn’t want to be on one of the large cruise ships like Princess or Holland America – not only was it still too soon after COVID to be around 4,000 of your not-so-closest friends, but the experience as a whole just didn’t appeal to us. So we tasked Sam with researching alternatives, and they came up with a spreadsheet ranking options by dates, itineraries, costs, number of passengers, and reviews. Then, pointing to one in particular, said “I think you should do this one, Mom”.

I think you should do this one


It was a small boat cruise aboard the Wilderness Discoverer - maximum 76 passengers – that spent 7 days and nights in Southeast Alaska traveling from Juneau through the fjords and straits and the Tongass National Forest with two days in Glacier Bay National Park. Margaret called to find out more. The agent for the cruise line (UnCruise) assured her that “April is a beautiful time to come; April and May are the least rainy months and less busy than later in the summer”. We chose the April 23rd – 30th cruise to coincide with our actual anniversary. While the cruise line could have bundled flights and hotels into the package, Margaret booked them separately so we could arrive in Juneau a day early and stay two extra nights after to make the most of our time in Alaska. “It should be fun!”

Cotton kills

In the run-up to our departure, we spent several weeks making sure we had an adequate number of base layers and rain gear. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we get wetness, but not a lot of frigid cold, so we get by living largely in cotton and polyester. This would not do in Alaska, where trudging through the colder clime necessitates under layers of fabrics with better insulating and moisture-wicking properties… as the saying goes in Alaska, “cotton kills”. So after many trips to REI, Next Adventure, Columbia Outlet, and others stores, both Margaret and I were suited up with new wardrobes of thinsulate, neoprene and wool, including a pair each of Bogs knee-high rubber boots (AKA “Alaskan sneakers”). Given that we're a bit older and less spry than we used to be, we also thought it prudent to buy a pair of collapsible trekking poles for each of us, including snow cups, since we knew we'd be hiking on uneven, snowy ground. And finally, we bought a new large, foldable rolling duffle, knowing that storage in the boat cabin would be at a premium.

What the h… oh… ohhhhhh

Around five weeks before our departure date brought a heart-dropping moment when Margaret received an email beginning “We’re sorry, but due to low-bookings, we’ve had to cancel the cruise you had booked”. “What the hell!” was the exact phrase uttered from behind her laptop. Our anniversary! In crisis! But then as she continued reading: “We can, instead, offer you this other cruise, with the exact same dates, a similar itinerary, slightly nicer boat (the Wilderness Explorer), and we’ll upgrade you to a premium cabin, for no additional cost, and throw in free passes for the sky tram in Juneau”.

The main difference was, instead of immediately going west and then south to Frederick Sound, the new itinerary headed north to Haines, switched out one of the days in Glacier Bay (which fell in the middle of the cruise) with a day in the town of Pelican, and then moved the one remaining day in Glacier to the end of the cruise. There was a twinge of sadness about spending only one day in Glacier, but given that everything still coincided with our anniversary date and wouldn’t require any rebooking of flights, it seemed like the best outcome. Plus, we were already planning on spending an extra day in Juneau, so we'd be able to enjoy the complimentary passes to the tram (it was one of the things we wanted to do while we were there anyway*). We absolutely said “yes! Sign us up!”

*more on the Juneau sky tram later

Welcome to Salt Lake City, stay a while

Less than a week before our departure, Margaret got a call concerning her father. He had suffered some sort of stroke and been moved to a higher level of nursing in the care center. Margaret’s relationship with her father was… complicated… but she was compelled to travel to Cut Bank, Montana to visit for a few days and see if there was anything she could do to help. To add even more stress, her flights to/from Montana ran into delays that found her getting trapped an extra day in Salt Lake City both coming and going, meaning she would not get back home until Friday afternoon, to depart for Juneau on Saturday. Nothing like cutting it close!

Now boarding

With a name like “Alaska Airlines”, you would think travel to Juneau would be easy and convenient, but in reality, flights into Juneau are surprisingly few. And nearly everything involves a layover in Seattle. Luckily, flights from Portland to SEA run almost every hour. We didn’t want the connection to be too terribly tight, since we were checking baggage for the first time in decades (remember, two pairs of knee-high rubber boots). We boarded the 45 minute flight to Seattle at 4:00pm Saturday, April 22nd, with a 2 hour layover for a leisurely dinner, and then caught the 7:10 to Juneau.

The flight to Juneau from Seattle is about 2 ½ hours. If you don’t know, Juneau is built into the side of one of the fjords carved by the later glaciers, the tall sides of which tend to funnel some pretty high winds right through town (what the locals call the "Taku Winds"), so landings at the airport can apparently get a bit dicey. But this evening things were fairly calm, just a few bumps as the plane swooped low and slow into the canyon.

The airport (JUN) itself is, seemingly, all of 3 gates and 1 long baggage claim conveyor, so getting in and out was relatively quick and easy. We were a bit bemused at baggage claim, however, as dozens of refrigerated boxes trundled along the belt with the other luggage; apparently all the hunters returning home with their hauls of fresh bison, deer meat and salmon from their catches in the lower 48. To our relief, both our checked bags showed up, and we were soon catching the courtesy van to our first night’s hotel.

As a side note, we shared the van ride with a young woman and her father, who told us that they were from Georgia, and she had taken a job driving a tour bus in Juneau, sight-unseen (this had been, in fact, her first time even flying on an airplane). I’m not quite sure what would compel a shy 18-year-old from Georgia to look in the paper, see an ad for a tour operator in Alaska, and say “Yep, that’s the job for me!”, but it certainly sounded like an adventure. She’ll have to let us know how it went!

Here's your key

When booking hotels in Juneau, we were struck by the obvious dearth of mid-ranged options. You have your 2-star hotels, coming in around $150-200 a night, and then you jump to the 4-stars which come in around $450 a night, and literally not a thing in between. If we had booked with the cruise line as a package deal, we might have been able to get into one of the 4-star hotels right across the street from the boat dock for a bit less, but not knowing Juneau at all we opted for one of the less costly hotels a couple blocks away.

The Juneau Hotel was serviceable enough. While the common hallways and sitting areas were decked in garish rose-patterned carpet and cheap leather couches, the rooms were updated in modern flair (including no fewer than 8 pendant light fixtures over the ceiling of the kitchenette arranged as if they were some sort of Chihuly art piece). Of course the large Alaskan 4x4’s make quite the racket in the downtown streets while we first settle in, but they eventually quiet down and we get some decent sleep.