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May 29, 2009

Ketchikan, Alaska
Set a Course for Adventure...Then Head to the Buffet

I got an email today with this image attached.


That's the 2008 video playing on the laptop. Have a look at the guy watching the screen in the bottom left corner.

...take your time. I can wait.

The photo was taken by a reporter on the campaign trail during the election last year. She said the press corps are fans of the video and one day on the plane they insisted he watch it.


The email came during a phantom burst of cell phone reception while out at sea. I managed to forward it to Melissa before the signal died. She was home alone at the time. She felt similarly compelled to pass it on, so she showed it to Sydney, our dog, who was wholly unimpressed.

What's almost as cool as him watching the video is that I have proof he watched it. If someone just told me this happened, I'd have a hard time believing it.

Melissa says the reporter who sent the photo is from Fox News. I was invited on various Fox News shows about half a dozen times when the last video came out. Each time, I replied that I'd be happy to come on their network as soon as they stop trying to turn us into a nation of frightened monkeys. I feel a little bit bad about that now.

A little bit.

I'm finishing up a week long cruise of the southern Alaska coast aboard the Norwegian Pearl with my dad, my sister, and my one-year-old niece, Jillian. I've never had much of an itch to go on cruises, but seeing as my current means of income provides about 40 weeks of vacation each year, I try not to pass on any major family outings. Also, I was baby back-up.

I've now been on a bona fide "Cruise," and my take on it is pretty much what you'd expect. I think it's great that cruising allows some people to go to places they would never otherwise go...I also think it's unfortunate that our society turns out people who find this a satisfying way to visit a place.

Cruise ships process experiences into freeze-dried goods. They shave off the gnarly bits and reheat what's left for bulk consumption. To put it another way, if the 2500 passengers who deboard for the shore excursions were replaced with, say, over-sized bean bag chairs, the procedure would remain largely unchanged. They have, in effect, turned travel into entertainment.

Incidentally, yes, many of the passengers actually do resemble over-sized bean bag chairs.

That's the condensed version of my mean-spirited rant. By halfway through the trip, my sister was done listening. She had a much rosier outlook on the whole enterprise, and a fair point that my long hours spent playing Half-Life 2 in my cabin didn't really qualify me to call anyone complacent.

It is what it is, I suppose. Comparing cruise ship travel to the sort of thing I get a kick out of isn't entirely fair.

Apples and oranges.

In any case, the ship itself is a spectacular monstrosity. I will now undertake a brief survey.

Length: 965 feet

Weight: 93,000 tons

Cruising Speed: 24 knots

Fuel Consumption: 11 tons per hour (that's 6 pounds every second)

The sun deck



Fitness center


Stardust theater


Bowling alley


Two-story Wii Sports jumbo screen


Soccer/basketball/tennis court


Rock-climbing wall


So, ya know, just the basics. Nothing you wouldn't expect to have access to while floating through the Arctic Sea.

To me, the most fascinating thing about the ship is actually the crew of somewhere near a thousand men and women. They are truly an international assortment. Near the bridge, a wall chart shows all the officers on board. The captain hails from Sweden. His first officer is Croatian. The second officers are Filipino. The navigator is Indian. The head cook is Jamaican. And so on and so on. In all, I'd be surprised if less than fifty nationalities are represented.

I get the sense that's nothing new in the nautical world. The practice of assembling a crew from around the globe goes back centuries and requires no diversity initiative. Ships move all over the place and they pick people up as they go. If someone can do the job and they'll accept the pay, not much else really matters. The lifestyle kind of demands egalitarian hiring.

During our stop in Juneau, my dad and I took off on an optional shore excursion that, honestly, made the entire week worthwhile. We took a bus out to a helipad with about twenty other passengers. They split us into smaller groups and put us on five separate helicopters, all of which took off simultaneously (which was awesome).

Flying in a line formation at low altitude, we whizzed through the Alaskan wilderness until we came upon a particularly massive glacier.


We rose up along its face, getting a close view into its deep crevasses.


We came up over the top and into a vast ice field nestled between the mountains.


A distant speck at the base of one mountain grew larger as we began to descend.


In seconds, we were on the ground and surrounded by over two hundred Alaskan huskies.


The dogs go nuts when the helicopters land, cause it means they get to go running, which is clearly their favorite thing in the universe.

A quick orientation and we were on our sleds. My dad took the seated position while I stood on the rear frame.


Our driver was named Cam, a college student from Colorado who came up three weeks ago for a summer job. She was new to the whole sled dog thing, but seemed pretty competent. She rode on a separate sled in front of ours that we were tied onto.

We had a false start when our leader tried to eat the dog behind him. It ended quickly in a ball of tangled rope and dog. We were given a new leader, a sturdy and mature six-year-old named Hagler.


And off we went on a two mile loop of the camp site.


It only lasted ten minutes, which was plenty for us. My dad and I spent most of that time grilling Cam on details of the operation, collecting factoids and statistics, as is our shared habit. Conversation was surprisingly easy between the sleds, since dog sledding is a whole lot quieter than you might imagine.

When we returned to camp, we were introduced to each of the dogs.



Most of them were pretty skittish. The friendliest was named Soy.


Dog teams are often named in themed groups. Soy's group was evidently named after condiments.

We watched a glacier calving in Glacier Bay and took a float plane ride here in Ketchikan. Those were the highlights. Aside from that the trip was mostly about eating large quantities of mediocre food.

We stop on Vancouver Island tomorrow, which I hear is lovely, and then I have six hours in Seattle before departing on a second, entirely unrelated expedition.


Lol I actually had to open the pop-up to see the title and understand you weren't talking about the guy in orange :D
Wow Obama knows who you are. How classy is this ?
You seems to have had a great time in this cruise. Nice to read you again !

I think I laughed the whole post...I really enjoy reading your updates. (not to say Obama or Soy are hilarious or anything. They both seem pretty cool). :)

Oh Matt I love that Obama photo - you can totally tell by his cheek that he is grinning away at your video. Awesome!!!

Cruising... it's a vacation, a rest. You travel. Travel is a whole other thing. I love traveling too, but with four children and a husband that works a minimum of 70 hours a week... I wouldn't turn down a cruise!

Another expedition? what expedition???? Tell us more!! Oh the suspense is killing me!!

Wow, all that stuff on a cruise ship and they can't put a cell tower in the middle of it? :)

Congrats on catching the eye of the Prez. Very cool.

Always nice to read you Matt. I bet you never imagined your video would end up reaching the President? then again, he's a pretty cool guy and I'm sure gets a kick out of relevant stuff like your video.

Thanks for your insights on cruises. I don't think they can in any way replace the adventure one takes one you show up in an airport you've never been before or go into a restaurant a local recommended you as their favorite. By the way, this year my wife and I go on our first cruise. Hopefully we can come across an excursion as fun as the one you did :).

Glad to hear from you again! It does not surprise me one bit that He enjoyed your video.

Loved the comment about Fox.

I will think of Soy tonight when I go running in the impressive heat of DC. Maybe he can provide some cool inspiration.

Take care.

After doing the Semester at Sea program in 2007 I thought I would never consider taking a cruise, but lately I've had an itch to get back on a big ship and see new places, even if I only get to see those places for 12 hours at a time.

The dog sledding sounds incredible.

Congratulations on having the president see your video. Definitely cool. I did something similar to you, leaving my job to travel. Drop by and leave a comment sometime!

Helicopters and doggies. Almost awesome enough to cancel out the "cold" thing that I so despise.

Yeah Vancouver Island! Make sure to give us a brief in your next post, I'd love to know how you found Victoria.

I'm sure that your president is not the only one whose watching your video!
Maybe the others were not taken in picture.

Your video would deserve to be watch in all the world by everyone!

I'm glad to read you again!

And I hope to see you in my city and dance with you! (Reims or Brussels).

Cruising is made to see new places, but I think most people know that if they stay on the beaten path they are just going to see a canned show.

The excursions seem to be by far the highlight. (I've been on a couple cruises)
They are canned, but you do stuff you could never do at home. I think most people are happy to read about your adventures of almost getting robbed, having their vehicle break down in the middle of the desert, and having to eat food that makes you sick for 3 days. We have limited vacation time and limited budget. We just want to go and have fun. We can pretend to be cultural.... :P

Half life 2... I got really tired of running out of ammo or chasing it down and looking for it in the dark.(gravity gun) I uninstalled.

Dogsledding is surprisingly quiet. See this is why I love what you do, it's the details.

Matt, one post every two months man! Don't you know that some of us vicariously live through you? Sheeeeesh.

Through all of your travels and living in Seattle, you have never been to Vancouver Island? You'll have to go back cause' anywhere near a place that docks a cruise ship is kind of not really the Vancouver Island that you've seen or heard of. That's like landing in Tijauna and that being your taste of Mexico. (Victoria is much nicer than Tijuana, I was just sayin'). Pacific Rim National Park or the Tofino area is where you want to be.

HE'S ALIVE! Welcome back Matt!

I agree with you wholeheartedly about cruises. I, too, went on an Alaskan cruise with my family, and after not liking boats and little bit, I really didn't like them after that trip. The only cool thing was not having to pack/unpack all of the time, and being able to get very close to a glacier dumping into the sea. Other than that, I really felt like we were trapped in touristy areas with a bunch of retirees.

Oh, and RIGHT ON about Obama, that is very cool. I still watch your video every now and then to cheer myself up or just to smile. :)

Fico feliz em ter notícias suas, realmente OBAMA parece ter gostado do seu vídeo.
Quem sabe você não recebe uma vaga para ministro do Turismo.

Um abraço

Tiago Luiz de Lima
Where The Hell is Tiago?

Oh, I'm so glad you are still traveling! yeah, a cruise, but you're still getting out there. You hinted at the end of your book that you might be done with that. Although I didn't believe a word of it; I don't think wanderlust can just run its course like a virus.

Coincidentally, the very days you were on your cruise to Alaska, My husband and I and a friend were ALSO in Alaska. However, we weren't cruising. We flew to Anchorage, drove 306 miles east to the Northern Exposure-esque town of McCarthy, and went whitewater rafting on the Kennicott and Nizina rivers, then flightseeing back. As we drove, seeing the amazing sights, we kept remarking how we were seeing stuff that cruise ship passengers never do. Of course, I wasn't thinking of dog sledding as an excursion!

Don't know if you enjoy reading other peoples' travel misadventures and seeing their photos or not, but if ya do...click over to http://www.paulcilwa.com/blog/2009/05/30-north_to_alaska/index.asp for the first of three posts about that trip.

Hello, Matt ..
I am sharing your video on the site of my city (Valparaiso-GO - Brazil)
please contact me for a new video in the capital Brasilia-DF Brazil



Great job Matt, what the hell are you currently up to? Gosh you got the President LMAO!haha

Your posts are highly educational, informative and entertaining. I love the video you did on your travel. Hope I could travel as wide as you did too! Keep going!

Beautiful pictures...

Ironically enough, my family is going on an Alaskan cruise this summer, though with Holland America. We were also interested in doing the dog sledding, but we weren't positive if it was worth the exorbitant amounts of money we would have to pay. After reading this post, I want to do it even more, but I'm still not positve. If you could send me any more information you are willing to share about the excursion, I would love to hear it!

Also, do you have any recommendations for excursions for Ketchikan/Juneau/Sitka? I want to get a feel for the native culture of Alaska and the Inuits, but I'm not sure if it is possible. I would also love to see some of the beautiful sights of the glaciers and such. I would enjoy hearing more about your experience on the cruise and learning what I should do... and what I should definitely avoid.

And I agree with you saying that it changes from travel to entertainment. Travel isn't meant to be pure entertainment - it's supposed to have things go wrong and include some kind of thinking, instead of mindless "follow-the-leader". Though, I suppose we should take into account that many cruises target the older, more aged demographic. I know my grandparents love cruises, especially after they could no longer do a lot of walking. Allowing someone else to do all of the planning and always having edible food around is nice, I suppose. I would prefer to travel the world with just a backpack and miss the trains, be stuck in stations overnight, stay in hostels, meet unusual people and travel with them for a week to meet their family and then move on, etc. Travel isn't travel unless there are people involved. You can see all the sights in the world, but unless you know about the people who built them and the people who live around them, you aren't truly traveling. Vacation vs. Travel - two very different things.

Eh, sorry for that mini-rant. I think that has been wanting to come out for a while...

Welll. I hope to hear from you!


Geez Matt, relax with the cruise rant. Is the glass half empty?

I thought it was Nelson Mandela first!! but, pretty decent second fiddle....wow, how. cool. is. that???!

Clearly Matt, you should of won the Nobel Peace prize for the work you did. Hands down.

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