Lessons From My Alaska Cruise

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Did you know that glacial ice is so compressed that the way the light penetrates it makes it look blue rather than white?

The top reason we went to visit Alaska was for the spectacular glaciers, and boy, the scenery did not disappoint! My very favorite memory was the morning we made our way down the fjord to within a mile of the Dawes glacier. The light was soft, the turquoise water held thousands of floating ice chunks, and then at the very heart of the fjord was the massive glacier. Every few minutes we would hear a reverberating ‘crack’ as ice calved off the edge. It was a completely unique and enrapturing experience.

And that’s how Alaska is. There is still something fantastic and wild about Alaska; there is nowhere like it. My husband and I went on a cruise this summer to get a taste of it ourselves. While we saw some incredible sights, there were some things learned as well. It was our first cruise, and while I’m aware cruising is generally one of the worst ways to vacation in terms of sustainability, if there is anything I’ve learned on this trip it was that environmental issues are complex. Read on for lessons learned from my Alaska cruise.

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  1. First of all, don’t plan a boating vacation when you’re prone to motion-sickness and pregnant!

    Just don’t - it’s not worth it! (>_<) Haha, of course we didn’t plan it this way. We’d been trying to get pregnant with our second child for about 7 months before booking this cruise, so we thought we might as well do what we wanted without worrying too much about something that might not happen. Well, timing was just so that I was smack in the middle of a very morning-sick first trimester. The very first day of the cruise we were at sea I was sick and throwing up most of the day. For the rest of the cruise I was on the verge of sickness, but did fine with a daily ginger ale. At the end of our 7-day “vacation” we’d been on the boat long enough that land started to feel like the sea (to both of us, not just me) and I was sick all over again. It wasn’t our finest trip, but overall it was great for the two of us to spend time together without our little one and we did get to see some spectacular country. In a way it was nice to be on a cruise ship while in the first trimester because I could always find a food that sounded palatable at any time of day or night.

  2. it is so important to be a conscious traveler

    Traveling the world and experiencing other cultures is a wonderful thing. However, it can take a pretty big toll on our surroundings, from emissions from flights to all the plastic conveniences used. It was a little sickening to see how much excess there was on our ship, and how much was wasted. You can help ease that by being a more conscious traveler wherever your destination, whatever you’re doing. Some of it is keeping up good practices you may have already started at home, while others involve adjusting how you plan.

    • BYO (bring your own) reusable utensils, straw, and napkin and opt out of disposables

    • Carry a reusable water bottle instead of buying drinks (if water is safe to drink at your destination)

    • Pack your own toiletries (cut a chunk off your shampoo bar and bring it in a small tin, for example)

    • Bring along a cloth bag or two (preferably that folds small) for carrying souvenirs, groceries, or whatever else you may need instead of accepting plastic bags

    • Use digital boarding passes and maps rather than paper ones

    • Try to order food in proportion to your appetite

    • Stay on established trails and don’t disturb nature

    • Clean up after yourself (i.e. don’t litter)

    • Be mindful of the locals (people and animals)

  3. supporting locals and learning about the local culture makes for the best memories and souvenirs

    In all of the places we visited we saw the exact same few stores selling the exact same things. They were set up by the cruise companies, nothing special about them. But when we walked a little farther and we found small companies, owned and run locally, selling completely unique local art and crafts. These were the souvenirs worth bringing home. Not only did buying local put the money in the pockets of the people who actually live there, but also the pieces we chose had stories and meaning behind them that made them worth much more to us. The same goes for experiences. Our favorite “excursions” were not booked on the ship, they were the moments when we walked the city tour ourselves, talked to the museum employee for ten minutes about totem poles, or rented bikes from a local company for a relaxing ride around town. This kind of travelling where you go off the beaten trail to learn about and experience the local culture makes for the best memories. After all, we travel to feel different and find the new, not to pretend we’re still at home. I’m not saying you have to miss out on something you’re interested in because it’s a popular attraction or to eat locally for every meal - we all need the familiar once in a while - just that it’s important to get out of your comfort zone for a little while and be open to something new.

  4. bike your way around

    There is nothing quite as romantic as biking through a beautiful city at dusk. It is by far our favorite way to sight-see when available and safe. You get those endorphins going, feel the wind brighten your eyes, relax a little as your pace is slower, and you’re free to stop wherever suits your fancy. Oh yeah, and helmet hair… just keep the helmet on for photos. ;) You are not limited to roads or schedules but you can go much farther than walking. We rented bikes in Victoria, Canada for the evening and took the city at our own pace. It was so relaxing and energizing at the same time to ride next to the sea, walk our bikes through a botanical-garden-level city park, make an impromptu stop for gelato, and brake to watch a particularly lovely sunset over the bay. Biking is great for both you and the environment; and if biking is not safe or accessible, there are other ways of slower travel that are also eco-friendly, like taking public transportation or walking.

  5. A large cruise is not the most sustainable option for many destinations, but it’s the best way for some

    This may sound slightly counter-intuitive because cruises are usually one of the worst ways to vacation due to the huge amount of waste and the itineraries that flood sight-seeing destinations for a few hours and then drain them again, leaving slightly shell-shocked locals without any of the money in their pockets. Normally I agree with this. However, Alaska has some unique aspects that made me take a closer look. Take the little town of Ketchikan, Alaska. Back in the day, the main source of jobs was in logging. Then, aggressive eco-warrior organizations that will remain unnamed convinced the federal government to bar anyone from making new roads into the forest, effectively shutting down the logging industry. This devastated the town’s economy, forcing most of the residents to leave. Now their economy is 80% tourism - nearly all of it coming from cruise ships. And that is really one of the best ways to see Ketchikan. It is located on an island, so land travel is a no-go. They don’t have enough flat land to make a runway, so there is only a tiny airport across the channel, making air travel expensive. Added to that, it’s a tiny town without the infrastructure to handle tourists overnight in the numbers they need to keep their economy afloat. A small chartered ship would be the best way to see these tiny towns of Alaska, but the expense makes it unrealistic for many people, and so cruises are actually one of the better ways to visit. It’s a reminder that environmental issues are not black and white. They’re multi-faceted and complicated, leading me to believe that environmental decisions are best made on a local scale with a national/international perspective, rather than being made on the national/international level.

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While I doubt we will cruise again, for multiple reasons, Alaska is a place we definitely hope to visit more than once. It’s wildness and beauty captured our imaginations.

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