Pat here: We’ve just recently returned from a cruise along the southern Alaska coast line, admiring glaciers and national parks, watching for wildlife, and resisting miles of jewelry. Mostly, I was looking for an easy trip involving little more than eating, drinking, and sleeping. We accomplished all that, although air travel is still a real pain, even from Southern California. If you ever have a choice, choose the Vancouver airport over Seattle!
Nicola here, talking about the unexpected delights of being stranded in a remote community. It’s a familiar and popular trope in books, whether it’s being marooned in the snow with a handsome hero or, in crime novels, stuck in an eerie house with a bunch of suspects, but I’ve always wondered what it would really be like to be stranded somewhere. When I was a small child, we went on a family trip to the Lake District at Christmas time and did get stuck in the snow. We all ended up rattling around in an empty hotel – they opened it up specially for us – and it felt like a great adventure to me but then I didn’t have to work out the logistics of how we were going to get home! I suspect that Wench readers in countries with more extreme weather than the UK are used to that sort of thing!
Last month, on our holiday in Alaska, we got stranded again. Our trip was heavily dependent on
the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry system that takes you all the way along the coast. We started out in Juneau on the MV Columbia and travelled up to Skagway, Sitka and various other intriguing ports along the coast. It was fabulous – along with admiring the stunning scenery we met and chatted to some very interesting people; locals who used the ferry system for their work, holiday-makers like us, a big family on their way to a wedding, lots of other very interesting people doing very interesting things. We disembarked on Wrangell Island to stay for 5 days with the plan of hopping back on another ferry after that to take us down to Prince Rupert in BC.
However, we’d been only a day in Wrangell when we heard that the ferries were on strike. There was no way we were going to be able to get the ferry out of Wrangell, which, of course, had implications for all of the rest of our trip. We weren’t the only ones by any means. There were stories of towns along the coast where they were putting stranded travellers up in school and church halls because there wasn’t enough accommodation for everyone. Alaska Airways put on a special flight to help a stranded school party get home. We hoped that the wedding guests we’d met along the way had all made it in time for the ceremony even if they couldn’t get home afterwards! For all these villages and towns along the coast, especially those with no road access, the ferry is literally a lifeline, and necessary for food supplies to be delivered and businesses to run and all sorts of other communications.
We were very lucky. We were staying in a lovely float house on the harbour and the owner very kindly told us we could stay as long as we needed. Our neighbours, living on the other boats, generously shared their freshly-caught prawns with us so there was no danger of us starving! The shops and museum in Wrangell provided plenty of things to do and we got to know people far better than we would have done if we’d just been passing through. Meanwhile we tried to find some options that would enable us to stick to our itinerary as best we could. The scheduled flights were all fully booked as there was only one a day and they went in the wrong direction; we realised it would take us four more flights to get back to where we were supposed to be! We couldn’t drive since we were on an island… There weren’t any other boats going south to Prince Rupert. Then one of our new friends came up with a suggestion: The local air charter company could squeeze us in to their schedule as a favour if we were prepared to be flexible in terms of when we could go.
As the ferry company had very kindly refunded us our costs, chartering a light aircraft was possible but then we hit the next problem. The weather was awful and a small plane couldn’t fly in it. We’d have to wait, which didn’t help my “nervous flyer” stress! Finally a clear day arrived. We chartered our very own aeroplane complete with standard-issue hero-style pilot to take us to Prince Rupert. Once I’d got over my nerves I almost enjoyed it. The views were amazing and there was a lot less queuing than on a scheduled flight but for lots of reasons I can’t see it becoming a regular thing!
I guess the lessons we learned from a real-life stranded situation was how friendly, helpful and kind people were and also how interesting it was to have time to get to know a place better than we might have done on a shorter visit. These days, with improved communication links it’s a lot more unlikely people are going to be castaway on an island for years, or stranded in a remote wilderness for months at a time although it is still possible.
In the past it was often poor weather that would maroon our ancestors somewhere isolated. Fog as well as snow was a particular hazard. As early as the 13th century, the government records show concerns over air pollution in London from the burning of sea coal and by the mid 17th century the combination of natural mist and fog in the Thames Valley plus the industrial smoke had given rise to the term “London Particular.” In the Regency the term “pea soup” was coined to describe “a fog as thick and as yellow as the pea-soup of the eating house.” In December 1813 the Prince Regent set out from Hatfield House to visit the Marquis of Salisbury but the fog was too thick for him to proceed. One of his outriders fell in a ditch and he was obliged to turn back. Meanwhile, the Maidenhead coach overturned in the fog and various other carriages drove off the road, ending up down alleyways and in gardens. Coachmen ended up leading their horses.
Have you ever been stranded anywhere, and if so how did you cope? Is it a theme you enjoy reading about in a book?
Nicola here, enjoying being back at home after an epic trip to Alaska and Canada. When I travel I do like to read up on the history of the places I'm visiting and to seek out historical sites – museums, old houses, monuments, battlefields, as well as experiencing as much as I can of a place as it is now. So today I'm sharing a bit of a whistle stop travelogue and I hope you enjoy it!
We arrived in Juneau Alaska twenty two hours after setting off from home and gratefully settled into our beautiful bed and breakfast place. Suitably restored by a long sleep, we went out to explore the city. I guess the first thing that impressed us was the location; it was a gorgeous day and the mountains and the water looked simply stunning. What a beautiful setting the city has as well as a rich history. I thought St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1894, was very striking. It has strong connections to both the native Tinglit and the European settlers, so this was my first history stop. Another quirky bit of Juneau history that I loved was the story of Patsy Ann, a bull terrier who came to the town in 1929. Although she was deaf she could tell when the steamships were coming in and would trot down to the docks to meet them, earning her the title of "Official Greeter of Juneau, Alaska!"
From Juneau we travelled up to Skagway on the ferry. Skagway still had something of the rough and ready feel of a frontier town which felt very authentic to the story of the Klondike Gold Rush. The first boatload of prospecters landed there in summer 1897 and by the autumn the town had developed from a row of tents to a place with well-laid-out streets, a number of frame buildings, stores, saloons, gambling houses, dance houses and a population of about 20,000. There were rich stories of lawlessness and profligate behaviour and equally compelling tales of the hardship many prospectors went through on the trail to the gold fields. Some of the old building remain and really conjure the raffish air of the old town. Something I hadn't appreciated though, was that the gold rush was over so quickly; by 1900 it had ended and Skagway was in danger of becoming a ghost town, although the coming of the railroad fortunately gave it a new purpose. We took some photographs in black and white to be in keeping with the historical atmosphere!
Our next stop, via the Alaska Marine Highway, was the city of Wrangell where we were staying for 5 days in the most gorgeous little float house in the harbour. As well as giving us the chance to visit the Anan Bear observatory, this stop also took us to the Le Conte Glacier, and the town of Petersburg. We'd never seen bears and the chance to watch them in the wild was amazing. Later in our trip we had the unexpected experience of meeting a bear when we were out on a walk on our own, and fortunately we remembered our bear training! We were behind a barrier when we took this photo, by the way, in case anyone thinks we stopped on the path to take a picture!
Petersburg was a very interesting place, like so many other settlements it had been a Tinglit fishing camp for hundreds of years before the European settlers arrived, in this case Norwegians who established a sawmill and cannery. Petersburg is known as "Little Norway" and the Scandinavian influence there is still strong. There's a great little museum, the Clausen Memorial Museum, that has traditional costumes on display and there is also a wonderful tradition of "rosemaling" in the town, which is decorative art that originated in Norway in the 18th century. It's so beautiful! There are painted panels on shops and houses and it's very evocative.
Alaska was wonderful and we'd love to return to travel further north and see more of the state. On this occasion though, we were heading south, down to British Columbia. In Vancouver I zoomed in on the Roedde House Museum, which is beautifully restored heritage house in the city's West End. Gustav Roedde settled in Vancouver in 1888 and he became the city's first bookbinder. There was a real appetite for culture and information in the growing city and within 5 years, Gustav had been successful enough to commission the architect Francis Rattenbury to build him a very stylish house! This has been restored and preserved to reflect late Victorian family life and it reflects the age in perfect detail. It feels as though you are stepping back in time when you walk through the front door and as always it's the little details of day to day life that are so fascinating – the children's toys and the family photographs drew me into their lives and even the charred wood over the doorway told the story of Christmas 1913 when the Christmas tree with real candles on it caught fire! Luckily the Vancouver fire department was just round the corner and the fire fighters arrived quickly and saved the house.
On to Toronto, then, via The Canadian, and a four day rail trip across Canada which was awesome. My final historical visit of the holiday was to the Fort York Historic Site, Canada's largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings and the 1813 battle site. I'd used the 1812-1814 war as background in one of my early Regency novels and it was so interesting to remind myself of the history and learn more about it. Fort York has a palpable sense of atmosphere which I think you find at a lot of battle sites. It was quite haunting. Even now, sandwiched between the railway and the freeway, it feels as though you're stepping back in time. I particularly loved the re-enactment of raising the flag and the demonstrations of military music, drill, musketry and artillery, all performed by students in uniforms of the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry, the soldiers who garrisoned the fort at the end of the War of 1812.
There were so many brilliant aspects to our holiday, both historical and other, that it left us wanting to return to see more of both the US and Canada. Most notable of all were the wonderful people we met along the way, so friendly and generous and helpful to these travellers! it really was a trip of a lifetime and I hope you have enjoyed a peek into some of the historical highlights!