WEB EXTRA: see a day-by-day photo album of the trip. Scroll down to the bottom of the story
UPDATE: Days 13
VANCOUVER, BC (WSAZ) -- They say hindsight is 20/20 -- for it's not until we look behind us do we appreciate where we've been, what we've experienced and who we've shared a part of life with.
John Marra's Alaska Adventure with Holiday Vacations has delivered experiences and wonders beyond our greatest expectations. Although the sights were amazing, it was the people on our trip that made it memorable. We shared in the "ooh's" and "aw's" of nature's glory, enjoyed the laughter each day brought and even had fun with good hearted teasing.
As part of that good hearted fun, each day of our trip John Marra presented what we called the "Broom Award." This award went to an individual who needed to "clean up their act" because they were either late, lost something, couldn't dress themselves or accidentaly became a character in one of the evening shows.
On our last night of our cruise, we took a group picture of our broom
award winners with the official broom.
Sunday morning delivered a gift to our cabin window as the sun began
to peek over the mountains of British Columbia. As we approach the city, we've now traded the towering mountains of Alaska for glass
skylines of Vancouver, which is home to more than one million residents.
Vancouver began as a lumber town back in the mid 1800s and was named after Capt. John Vancouver, who first journeyed through the area in the late 1700s in search of the northern passage. Vancouver is now a progressive city with cruise ships, cable buses and bragging rights as it is host to the 2010 winter Olympics. They expect the Winter Olympics will bring more than three billion visitors to the city, so there is a lot of construction going on as they prepare for the games.
After a brief bus tour of downtown, we begin the the trip to Seattle
where we will share our last night of this spectacular trip.
UPDATE: Days 11 & 12
SKAGWAY, Alaska (WSAZ) -- It weighs more than 78,000 tons, holds 2,000 passengers, has 600 staff members and somehow floats -- it's the Norwegian Sun cruise ship.
John Marra and guests have been cruising the coastal waters off Alaska and British Columbia for two days. As with every cruise, there is plenty of pampering, entertainment and, of course, food.
The only usual you won't see on this cruise are the sun worshippers staking their claim to areas on the ship's decks. With temperatures in the 60s and a strong wind coming from what seems like every direction, passengers are keeping to the warmth and activities on the inside of the ship. The days are spent exploring the ship, playing golf or ping pong, art auctions, kids camp, casino games, taking in a show or John Marra's favorite, nap time.
The most popular activity is the treasure hunt that takes place on
board at least three times a day. It's the hunt for the best buffet
or restaurant as guests sample foods that would never appear on the
dinner table at home.
My favorite buffet so far was the chocolate buffet where you felt like you had just walked into Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Imagine a world dipped, smothered, covered, made of, and carved out of chocolate. Talk about your childhood wishes... unfortunately, you couldn't eat the dishes.
It doesn't take long before you notice your pants starting to get a little snug, so fortunately, there is is an exercise room and walking track around the ship. After a good workout, you're ready for, yep, the next buffet.
We will dock in Vancouver, British Columbia, at 8 a.m. Sunday to start
our journey home.
Historic Skagway saw tens of thousands of fortune-seeking prospectors pass through its streets during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s. Although more than 30,000 came in search of gold, only about 3,000 found gold and only about 300 actually struck it rich.
Today, Skagway is still a bustling town as thousands of tourists board and unboard the fat-bellied cruise ships that pull into this deep water port. As you walk the streets, you feel almost transported back in time and your ears catch the sound of a bar room piano, the hoofs of a horse pulling a stagecoach or a tidesman bragging on his furs. It's 2009 indeed, but the feel is very 1899 with its still thriving pioneering spirit and frontier freedom -- a heritage here that natives are known for and proud of.
After a full day of shopping in Skagway, John Marra and his guests trade the 52 seat bus in for a 2,000 passenger cruiseship. We set sail at 9 p.m. (1 a.m. EST) Thursday to sail the northern Pacific Coast Line for two full days before we disembark in Vancouver, British Columbia. This is John's first cruise and you could see the excitment building inside him before he exclaimed "golly neds" as he saw the massive size of the ship.
John and guests from our tri-state area have seen nature's wonders and experienced the amazement and awe of of a land rich in beauty. We have the ability to Google the world and gain knowledge, but you have to experience Alaska and the Yukon to gain an understanding.
The words I write are not big enough, deep enough or rich enough to describe what I've seen on this trip with John and our guests. My hope is that you will make the choice to not just learn about life, but rather experience it. For the world around you is "Larger Than Life"
as they say in the Yukon.
The first stop on John Marra's journey Wednesday took us to the Beringia Discovery Museum where you could learn of a land that no longer exists. It was called Beringia and it was formed during the ice age as the sea level dropped by about 400 feet, exposing a land never seen before. It was here that prehistoric animals roamed the lush fields. When the ice age ended and the ice melted, the sea level rose and covered Beringia forever.
At the museum, visitors were able to see the remains of the animals and had a chance to hunt using the darts of early settlers. So with a stern face of determination, Barbara Covert of Madison, W.Va., stepped up to throw her dart at the mighty woolly mammoth in hopes to make the kill. As she cocks her arm and lets the arrow fly toward the wood cut-out, the arrow falls about five feet in front of her. With a look of disappointment on her face, she turns to the crowd and says "don't count on me for tonight's dinner."
Our bus driver, Larry, promised our next stop to be the ride of a lifetime -- a wooden structure that drops 3,000 feet, includes steep hills, cliff-hanging turns, two tunnels and numerous bridges. It's not Kings Island's roller coaster The Beast, but rather the White Pass and Yukon Railroad.
Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, it was known as "the railway built of gold" as it hauled thousands of men and tons of explosives to help with the mining of gold. Today, it hauls a different type of gold known as tourists. It's a unique historical experience filled with panoramic views of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels and a look back at how life in the Yukon Valley was more than 100 years ago.
John Marra and guests load the bus for the 301 mile journey to Whitehorse in the Yukon, Canada. We will travel the Alaska Highway, which is famous for two things: endless beauty on either side of the road and endless potholes in the road. It's going to be a long ride.
About 2 1/2 hours into our bumpy trip, our tour guide Lynn says "time for a picture stop" as we pull up beside Kluane Lake. Like 12,000 foot tall giants overlooking their treasure, the mountains stand protecting the aqua green lake below. It's truly a sight that eyes can't open wide enough to see or cameras carry enough memory to take home. It's the Yukon and it's larger than life.
There's a strange sence of peace and calmness that captures you as your belief in a true existing wilderness is confirmed. After about 20 minutes of amazement that inner peace is broken by the call of the guide saying "back on the bus!" So it's back to our 52 seat rolling home and the next stop.
Although Whitehorse now has a population of 23,000, it started as a tent and cabin town with about 500 pioneers making their home along the Yukon River. In 1942, the population grew to 8,000 with the building of the Alaska Highway and the town even boasted of its two and three story cabins, referred to as "log skyscrapers."
As with much of Alaska and the Yukon, tourism and mining are the mainstays that help Whitehorse grow and prosper.
The streets are lined with candy canes and the sign reads, "Saint Nicholas Lane, welcome to North Pole Alaska." Santa and Mrs. Claus were still asleep when we arrived bright and early Monday morning, but the reindeer were up and ready to fly.
John Marra, along with Floyd and Nina McDermott, of Coolville, Ohio, couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a picture in front of the famous north pole.
The rest of our day will be spent traveling down the beautiful Alaskan Highway as we head to Beaver Creek in the Yukon territory. Beaver Creek is a western boarder town in Canda with a population of about 50.
DAY 7: Part 2
For most of us, a visit to the zoo is just a short drive away -- a day filled with cotton candy, gift shops, hotdog stands and animals behind walls with fake rocks and man-made pools. We go to zoos to see animals and chalk it up as the activity of the day. You don't go to Alaska to "see animals" -- you go there to get of glimpse of wilderness...period.
It's a world to its own where man has barely left a footprint in the portrait of majesty. Your vocabulary becomes very simple and childlike as you gaze at the splendor of the sun setting behind snowcapped mountains or a mother bear leading her cubs across an open field.
Words like "Ooo", "ahhh" and "oh my" are all that come across your lips as you try to swallow the vastness of this masterpiece of nature.
It's a land that calls many, but only a few can take the harsh winters. A land that has been opened to all, but most eyes see only its surface. It's a land of secrets and wonder, rich with beauty and splendor -- yet a land that is hard and and full of danger forgiving to none.
I have learned that Alaska is anything but an activity, it's a life experience that reaches into you and makes you realize how small you are. An experience that makes you realize the awesomeness of the gift of nature.
We are saying goodbye to Alaska for now as we head into Canada, but also say thank you for a true life experience.
The first stop on John Marra's Alaska adventure on Sunday was to see the 800 mile long pipeline, which carries 20-percent of the domestic oil made in the United States. When the pipeline was installed, the goal was to impact the environment as little as possible. With 554 animal crossings, 800 river crossings and construction that made it earthquake resistant, the pipeline started carrying oil in 1977 and cost 8-billion dollars to build.
Then, it was on to find gold.
"Time to strike it rich," yelled the train conductor at the El Dorado Gold Mine.
Here, guests were given the chance to pan for gold in a still active gold mine. The gold rush of Alaska began in 1902 and, although the rush is over, the hills still give up gold to those willing to put in the long hours and hard work.
Eddy and Brenda Jacobs of Ashland, Ky. (seen on the right in the photo album below), couldn't stop laughing and said this was the most fun they had this trip -- but they wouldn't want to make a living this way.
John Marra said his heart began to race when he saw the shine in the bottom of his pan. After putting in a solid five minutes of panning, John rushed to the cashier to see what his efforts paid. He earned $48 for his day's wage as a gold miner.
As we pulled into our next stop, we could hear a sound that every resident of Alaska is familiar with. It was the sound of howling Alaskan Huskies at the Trail Breaker Kennel, where about 80 dogs are being raised to become sled dogs. The dogs will begin pulling sleds at the age of 5 months, which may seem young, but this breed of dog instinctively wants to run. As part of one of the demonstrations, John Marra was dressed up how a musher would need to be for a race.
Inside, you know that if you hit the snooze button, you're going to be late and left behind. You pack your backpack, grab your lunch box and walk to the bus stop waiting for bus number 158, feeling like you're back in grade school. It's not the first day of school, but you still feel a little nervous about what awaits you as you prepare to adventure into more than 6 million acres of untouched wilderness.
It's at that point, you feel very small and realize that you are about to be a part of the food chain. Welcome to one of the most beautiful, but harshest environments in America. It's Denali National Park, which is the size of the state of Massachusetts.
The hope of today's trip is to see a moose, an elk, an eagle or the trophy sighting of a brown bear. Of course, this isn't a performance where the characters walk out on stage when cued, so there's no certainty of a big animal sighting. Regardless, whether a moose decides to pose for the camera or not, the towering mountains and glacier rivers don't disappoint travelers as they they have cameras pressed against their face for the entire tour.
It doesn't take long before someone screams "BEAR!" At first, you think it's a rock, but then that rock raises up on two feet and stares you down. It's at that point, you know your day has been a success.
John Marra and guests were not disappointed as we saw 12 brown bear, several herds of caribou, two white tail fox and three moose. By the end of the day, camera cards were full, stories were being embellished and smiles were on every face. It was a good day...
John Marra and guests traveled to Wasilla, AK, where they were able to ride in a cart pulled by Alaskan sled dogs. Alaska is the home of the world famous Iditarod Trail Race, which is an annual race starting in Anchorage and spanning more than a thousand miles -- ending in Nome, AK. The word Iditarod means "distant place," which is fitting since the 16 dog and musher teams will spend more than 9 days racing across the north eastern part of Alaska in March.
Mary Ann McClure of Hurricane, W.Va., who is traveling with our group, actually rode in the first 11 miles of the Iditarod in 2008. She submitted a bid and won the opportunity of a lifetime riding with musher Jeff Deeter. Mary says it was amazing how the musher and the
dogs worked perfectly as one member to reach the finish of the race.
In the 2009 Iditarod calendar, Mary is featured for the month of December. She says once is not enough and that she will bid again for the chance to ride with Jeff in 2010.
John Marra and tri-staters boarded a 100-foot boat and sailed the royal blue waters of Prince William Sound. The air echos with the sound of white thunder and the boat shakes when glaciers the size of five-story buildings crash into the ocean.
There are more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska covering about 29,000 square miles of the state. This is one of nature's most impressive shows of its power and glory.
There are no roads, no airports and, unfortunately, no Starbucks here. But what you do have are towering waterfalls, breath taking scenery, massive glaciers and unique wildlife such as bald eagles, otters, moose, elk and brown bear.
Alaska has its share of mining but it's not coal or gold, it's jade.
Alaska is one of only three places in the world where jade can be found and mined. We stopped at the Jade Factory where decorations and jewelry are made from the precious stone. In the picture in the photo album below, you can see a jade boulder being cut by a diamond blade saw. It will take 30 days to cut all the way through the boulder. Jade mining in Alaska begin in the early 1960s.
Immediately, they noticed the cool weather and spectacular, breath-taking views.
Anchorage looks like any other city with its Wal-Mart stores, Applebee’s, and Arby's; but it's what surrounds the city that sets it apart.
The sun rises from behind a wall of purple mountains and reflects on the glassy bay surrounding the city.
The days are longer during the summer, as the sun rises at 6 a.m. and doesn’t close its eye until after 10 at night.
The people of Alaska spend a lot of time outside during the summer, soaking up as much daylight as they can since there is only about five hours of daylight most of the year.
With a population of 125,000, Anchorage makes up 40 percent of the population of the entire state of Alaska.
On Wednesday, John Marra takes to the city, exploring the many handmade crafts.
You won't find hornpipes, chunks of coal or painted buckeye nuts in these stores, but rather a collection of hand made Indian crafts made of bone, grass, wood, jade, silver and leather.
The plant life is very unique to Alaska so travelers are asking John Marra about the unusual plants they have already seen.
The temperature this time of the year is about 60 during the day, and drops to the 40s at night, so the cool temperatures are perfect conditions for these unusual plants and flowers.
The purple flowers John was pointing out by the visitor's center are called Alaskan Forget Me Not, which is also the state flower.
After traveling to Columbus, Ohio by bus, the group is flying to Anchorage, Alaska.
Alaska is a popular destination this year as it celebrates its 50th year as the 49th state.
Alaska is known for its vast wilderness and wildlife such as the Gray Wolfe, Grizzly Bear and moose.
One of the highlights of the trip will be a visit to Denali National Park in Alaska, which is known for its ice covered Mount McKinley rising 20,320 above sea level.
The group will also cruise the protected waters of Prince William Sound and come face to face with tidewater glaciers, sea otters, seals and whales.
They will also travel to Canada's extensive ice fields, mountains and the wilderness of Kluane National Park.
The trip will end with three days aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sun.
Keep clicking on WSAZ.com to track John's trip through the wilderness, including many pictures from the trip. John will also report on his trip when he returns home. He's traveling with WSAZ photojournalist Grover Tadlock.