My first sighting of a snowy owl in the wild!

Next month we will have lived in Canada for 10 years and in all this time we have not been lucky enough to see any snowy owls in the wild. That changed this past weekend!

A snowy owl east of Calgary, Alberta.

We took a road trip this past Sunday up to Drumheller and back again via some back roads rather than the direct highway routes. On our way back, just about half an hour away from home, I first spotted a snowy owl perched on a road sign, but by the time I realized this and looked back, it had flown off. At that point I was just happy that I had actually seen one, no matter how brief. A few kilometers further down and there was another one sitting on a fence post by the side of the road. This time my husband took the next opportunity to make a u-turn and get us as close as we dared to prevent it from flying off. The owl, a female I think (as males are all white, unless they are a juvenile), happily sat on the fence post just turning her head from side to side letting me photograph her. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be able to get a photo of a wild snowy owl!

We are lucky in our area, as just east of us is prime snowy owl winter habitat; the birds arrive around November and stay until about March, before flying up into the arctic for the summer. Despite it being their winter home, it is difficult to spot these birds; it involves a lot of driving around in cold temperatures on roads that barely look driveable and it takes a good bit of luck (I know, a few years ago I went out specifically in this area to see if I could spot some). Snowy owls can be quite territorial and will defend their patch; thankfully for us, they are active day and night. Our winter so far has been very mild, with not a lot snow on the ground, so if the weather stays like this I might have to take another drive to that area to see if I can spot some more!

The other bird we spotted on our day out was this prairie falcon (at least, that’s what I think he is!). Again, a lot of these birds usually fly off if you get too close, so I count myself lucky that this one didn’t seem to mind us.

We had a great trip out (more photos to come in the next posts), made even more special by the sighting of the snowy owl.

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Vancouver’s Gastown Steam Clock and the Hotel Europe

A belated happy new year to you all! I hope you had a wonderful festive December with family and friends.

It has been a while since I last updated my blog, but I just ran out of mojo in December, so decided to take a break from blogging.

So, with renewed enthusiasm I give you my last photos from our stay in Vancouver back in September last year.

Vancouver’s Steam Clock

This wonderful steam clock is a rare thing, at the time of being built it was thought to be only the second such clock, since then 4 more steam clocks have been built by the same clockmaker (Raymond Saunders). It stands on the corner of Water Street and Cambie Street in Vancouver’s Gastown district, and despite its Victorian look was built in 1977 as part of a revitalization program for this part of Vancouver. The clock does not solely depend on steam, which is pumped in through the underlying steam pipes that provides heat to most of Vancouver’s downtown core. The clock does partially rely on steam to wind its mechanisms, but it also has an electric motor. At the top of every hour each whistle gives a toot, while at every quarter-hour the clock whistles the Westminster Chime, which is the same used by Big Ben in London, UK.

The clock is very popular with tourists and one great way to enjoy the sounds and sights of the clock is to dine at the Water Street Cafe right opposite the clock. As it rained when we visited we managed to get a table right by the window looking out to the steam clock. We even witnessed a wedding party having some of their photos taken at the clock. The spot makes for some great people watching, and the service and food were great.

The old Hotel Europe in Gastown, Vancouver

A little walk further down Water Street, at the corner with Powell Street and Alexander Street, stands Vancouver’s very own flatiron building, the old Hotel Europe. This building was completed in 1909 and is Vancouver’s earliest reinforced concrete structure. After the hotel’s initial success, it faded due to competition with newer and grander hotels in Vancouver, and fell into disrepute as a brothel and in the 1920s and 1930s it housed a beer parlour. The inside was renovated in 1983 and converted the building into shops and living spaces.

Overall, I really enjoyed the Gastown area, there was lots to see and do and plenty of restaurants, pubs and bars to choose from

Gastown Vancouver

Maple Tree Square in Gastown, Vancouver

Vancouver’s Lookout Tower, as seen from Gastown

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Vancouver’s Granville Island

On our day in Vancouver we took a walk from our downtown hotel to Granville Island; Mr T wanted a photo of the Granville Island sign and we had been told that the market was fantastic.

It took us around 30 minutes of walking, but along the way we saw some great sights, including Vancouver House, a 52-storey building that was nearing completion. This will be Vancouver’s 4th tallest building and in my view, it’s most exciting looking one.

Vancouver House

Downtown Vancouver

Granville Island is man-made and used to be mud flats before it became the home of warehouses, mills, factories, and shops. In the 1950s the island was transformed again by filling in parts of False Creek to create more industrial space, at which point it ceased to be an island. Nowadays the warehouses hold shops and businesses and most notably The Granville Island Public Market. This is an indoor market and contains a wide variety of food stalls as well as stalls selling unique gifts. The market is open daily (except certain holidays) and makes for a great place to eat and try some new foods.

I am not vegan, but I liked this graffiti we saw under Granville Bridge.

Granville Island is also home to a small boat harbour, as the following photos show.

Burrard Street Bridge as seen from its opposite number the Granville Bridge, Vancouver

The easiest way to get to the island, other than on foot, is to use one of the many water buses. There are a couple of different operators, depending on where you want to go. We ended up taking a water bus round trip along False Creek, which was cheaper than taking a tour with the many tour companies in the area (I think we paid CDN$15 for the two of us).

Mural on Granville Island, Vancouver

Part of the Vancouver skyline as seen from the water bus on False Creek.

We eventually disembarked the water bus at the opposite site from Granville Island and took a walk along English Bay as I wanted to visit the large Inukshuk (read more about these ancient way marker in my previous post).

The Inukshuk at English Bay, Vancouver

Despite the weather not having been the greatest on our trip to Granville Island and English Bay we had a great time. I imagine both of these areas would be very busy during the summer, so I am glad we visited outside of the season.

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Day 7 – Arriving back into Vancouver

After a wonderful 6 days of cruising to Alaska and back we arrived in Vancouver at 07:00hrs. Up until this time we had wonderful sunny weather, but as we neared Vancouver the clouds got heavy, sunlight was blocked out, and eventually the rain started.

Disembarkation was relatively smooth for us; your cabin class will dictate when you are requested to leave the ship. In our case we had the last slot and so went for one last leisurely breakfast at the Pinnacle Grill and eventually left the boat prior to our required disembarkation time.

Note that prior to disembarkation you will receive a form to complete on which you indicate if you will take your luggage off the ship yourself, or if you want the cruise line to take care of this. If you have a flight the same day I would recommend you take your own luggage off the ship, as it will greatly reduce your waiting time and you can get going as soon as you are off the ship. If you do want the cruise line to take care of your luggage you will be required to place your suitcases outside of your cabin by a certain time the night prior to disembarkation.

It was sad to leave, but we have had the best time and were very well looked after during our cruise.

Would I recommend a cruise? Yes I would, but, make sure you know what you want from your cruise and pick your cruise line accordingly. I would also say that it is worth to pay more for a better cabin, as we really enjoyed the extra space it gave us and the additional perks.

While our cruise had come to an end, our vacation was not quite over. We stayed the night in Vancouver and explored the city on Day 7 before heading back home on Day 8 (more of Vancouver in upcoming posts).

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Day 6 – Ketchikan, some final photos

Our day in Ketchikan was wonderful; we made full use of having wonderful weather and explored the town quite a bit. One of the things that I really liked were all the houses that are built on pilings and the steep wooden stairs that lead up to other streets or houses.

On our way to Creek Street, Ketchikan, Alaska

One of many houses built on pilings

Stairs in Ketchikan, Alaska leading up to streets and houses

Seeing the salmon in the Ketchikan Creek downtown was another highlight, although it was kind of sad knowing that they were just awaiting their death.

Ketchikan Creek, near the salmon ladder

One of many shops selling packaged smoked salmon in Ketchikan, Alaska

The area around the Thomas Basin is another great place to take a walk.

Small boat harbour in Thomas Basin, Ketchikan, Alaska

Lamp-post detail in Ketchikan, Alaska

On our way back to the cruise ship we spotted these wonderful lamp-post signs.

Eventually it was time to go down to the cruise dock and check back through the security, but not before one final photo of the harbour area around us.

View from the cruise ship dock

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Day 6 – Historic Creek Street in Ketchikan

This was one item on our itinerary I was really looking forward to; I had seen a ton of photos of Creek Street on social media and had read up on the area and was excited to be seeing it for myself. Despite it being fairly touristy, I really enjoyed walking along the boardwalk and taking in the sights and sounds.

 

Ketchikan’s Creek Street

 

Creek Street perches on pilings along the Ketchikan Creek and used to be the Red Light District. A lot of houses in Ketchikan sit on pilings as it was/is too difficult to blast away the rocky hills in the town.

Creek Street is home to Dolly’s House Museum, the only brothel left standing. We did not visit it, but I understand that inside you’ll find photos of Dolly and a secret closet where she used to stash contraband liquor during the Prohibition years. You can learn all about the women of the Red Light District (for example, the ladies working in Creek Street were only allowed to shop on certain days so that “proper’ ladies could avoid them). Dolly’s brothel was shut down in 1954.

Dolly’s House Museum

One of the other attractions are the salmon; when we visited it was the end of the season and further down the creek salmon were just sitting in the water in the hundreds, all waiting to die. However, we did get a wonderful show from three seals that were in the waters at Creek Street.

Salmon waiting to die

The end of their run

We spent quite a bit of time here; it’s a great place for people and animal watching!

 

 

 

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Day 6 – Ketchikan – City of Salmon and Totem Poles

Our day in Ketchikan started with more wonderful weather; according to locals we were lucky to get so much sunshine in September!

Ketchikan is Alaska’s 4th largest city and is known for its commercial salmon fishing and its indigenous Haida and Tlingit heritage. If you want to see totem poles, Ketchikan is the best place in the US to see them; some of the region’s, and world’s, oldest totem poles are preserved in the small, but wonderful Totem Heritage Center (more about that further down). Ketchikan, like a lot of places in Alaska, is at its busiest during the cruise ship season (May to September), during which around one million visitors descend on this town (technically a city, but size wise more of a town). As we got there at the end of the season it did not feel as crowded as it might do during June/July/August. As is usual with cruise ports, there are a ton of tours you can book either through your cruise company or independently, but you can easily walk this town on your own. You can download and print maps from their town website, or collect one from their Visitor Bureau when you disembark the ship.

This pole stands at the ramp up to the Totem Heritage Center.

 

This post is all about the totem poles; I will cover Creek Street, salmon and some other bits and pieces in later posts.

As mentioned above, the Totem Heritage Center is a not to miss place in town. It is only a half hour walk from the cruise ship terminal and takes you past some wonderful streets and buildings and you can combine this with a loop walk that will take you down Creek Street.

The museum only cost US$6 per person, which is ridiculously cheap and it also allows photography. It is a smaller museum, but packed full of local indigenous history. We arrived well before lunch and there were just a few people visiting at that time. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we walked right past the master carver, who carved some of the outside totem poles, as well as the entry doors. He is a small, unassuming man and it made my day that we had crossed paths without us realizing the significance at the time! The following photos show some of the exhibits, as well as totem poles we saw around town. Enjoy!

These totem poles greet you as you enter the Totem Heritage Center, some of them are 200 years old we have been told.

Outside of the Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, AK

This is a carved red cedar panel entitled “Raven stealing the Sun” by Tlingit artists Nathan Jackson and Ernest Smeltzer. It is a representation of the story that tells of how the raven stole the sun and released it into the sky bringing light into the world.

 

A great and colourful display of local dancing masks.

This is the Thunderbird Dance Mask

Indigenous art on the side of a building

This one we found outside a shop specializing in local art pieces.

This eagle was sat alongside a busy road.

A “topper” if you will along the harbour

 

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Day 5 – Cruising around Glacier Bay

Sunrise as we enter Glacier Bay National Park

We arrived in Glacier Bay National Park in the morning of Day 5 and our first stop was the John Hopkins glacier. We were so very lucky with the weather and the position of our cabin, as we had a prime viewing spot all day! This glacier is about 19km long and is one of a few advancing tidewater glaciers. The glacier was named after the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA by Harry Fielding Reid in 1893. It was a wonderful start to our day in the company of majestic mountains and glaciers.

Approaching John Hopkins glacier

The second stop was at the Margerie glacier, which is also a tidewater glacier, but unlike John Hopkins it is not advancing, and unlike most other glaciers it is also not receding; it is pretty stable and is around 34km long. Margerie glacier is named after the French geologist and geographer Emmanuel de Margerie, who visited this area in 1913. It was here that we were able to see some ice calving; the sound is very similar to a gunshot but is accompanied by some really load and roaring booms. Margerie glacier is one of the most active glaciers here and is also the most visited.

Margerie glacier

All the glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park are remnants of what is called the “Little Ice Age”, which began around 4,000 years ago. It reached its maximum stage in around 1750 at which point a general recession of the glaciers began.

Glacier Bay was declared a National Monument in 1925, then a National Park and Preserve in 1980, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1986 and most recently in 1992 was declared a World Heritage Site.

Ice calving at Margerie glacier

John Hopkins Glacier

The sun sets on a wonderful day

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Day 4 – Skagway – Gateway to the Klondike

A look down Broadway towards the cruise ship terminal

Day 4 of our Alaskan cruise saw us arriving in Skagway at 0700hrs; we disembarked around 0800hrs into the frosty morning air with the sun trying to melt the frost.

The White Pass train coming into Skagway

Skagway is the gateway to the Klondike, which actually is in the Yukon in Canada, and while the gold rush is over, it can get very busy with cruise ship passengers in the height of the season; some days there are as many as 5 cruise ships in port. The day we arrived our ship was one of three that visited. Skagway is famous for a lot of things, amongst them their White Pass train, which takes you through the mountains into the Yukon in Canada. We decided to give this a miss and instead took to exploring Skagway on foot.

Mr. T enjoying Reids Falls

First on my must see list was the Goldrush Cemetery, which is about a 40 minute walk through the town (you can read more about the cemetery in this post from my previous trip), there is a local bus that gets you to within 10 minutes walk. However, aside from the cemetery, I really wanted to show Mr. T the Reids Falls, which are just a little hike up from the graveyard. When we visited there was nobody else at the falls. There is a tour in one of those historic busses, they stop at the cemetery and give you a bit of the history, but note, that you do not get time to walk up to the waterfalls.

After this we took a stroll back into town to take in all the different historical buildings and do some souvenir shopping. When shopping for souvenirs in Alaska, make sure you buy items that are actually made in Alaska. Look out for the official emblem which depicts a mother bear and her cub in a rectangular format with the words “Made in Alaska” underneath. Note that the “Made in Alaska” emblem has no established colors, but I saw it mainly in black and white.

The Arctic Brotherhood Hall, Skagway, Alaska

One of the most iconic buildings in the town is the Arctic Brotherhood Hall; apparently it is the most photographed building in Alaska. The front of the building is made up of 8,883 pieces of driftwood, which were all collected by the Brotherhood’s members on the shores of Skagway Bay. The facade was restored in 2004/2005; all driftwood pieces were removed and it was found that 40% had rotted, so they were replaced; the remaining 60% were still in reasonable condition after more than 100 years and were therefore preserved. Today the building houses the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau.

A must visit when in Skagway!

On my first trip to Alaska I had bought myself a hand-made bead whose glaze contained gold found in Chicken, Alaska. I was determined to go back to that little marvel of a shop to see if I could add to my one bead necklace. I was pleased to find the shop still existed and was still in the hands of the same owners from 5 years ago. I was even more thrilled to discover that they still carried the beads, so Mr. T bought me two more. If you are in Skagway I urge you to visit this little shop, which is just off Broadway on a back alley between 4th and 5th Ave.

One of the new things we discovered were these totem poles; they did not exist when I visited in 2013. They are hand crafted and are on the side of Kirmse’s Curios, which is a locally owned shop specializing in jewellery and locally carved jade.

The Stampeder Statue in Skagway

This statue of a stampeder is also a new addition to Skagway; a stampeder was a prospector who was following the call of the Klondike goldrush. Officials in Canada required stampeders to carry 2,000lbs of food and supplies with them to ensure they would survive the harsh Canadian winter.

We were glad that we had not booked any tours, as there is so much to see and explore in Skagway, and all of it can be done on foot. For a self-guided walking tour you can visit Skagway’s official website and download some maps.

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Day 3 – Bye-Bye Juneau

MS Nieuw Amsterdam as dusk settles on Juneau’s cruise terminal

After spending a wonderful day in Juneau, Alaska it was time to head back to our ship and say goodbye to this beautiful town. I wish we could have had more time here as we didn’t get a chance to take the gondola up to Mt Roberts. I would have also loved to go to Mendenhall Glacier and explore that area again, but with 9 hours in port there is only so much you can fit in.

Juneau definitively deserves more than just 9 hours!!

The Ruby Princess in port in Juneau, Alaska

 

Leaving Juneau, Alaska

 

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