Friday, Apr 27, 2018
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First leg of journey to Alaska is not without incident, but we survived

Honey Nut Cheerios, a small carton of milk, bagel with cream cheese, and a banana. At 1:30 p.m. Sound a little strange for Sunday lunch?

Well, that's what we had recently on a Northwest flight from Detroit to Seattle. And in case you think that this is just one more example of airline silliness, it wasn't really.

Listen to what happened.

Northwest's flight No. 281 was scheduled to depart the Edward J. McNamara Terminal at 9:05 a.m. So we drove up from Toledo in the early hours of a Sunday morning to properly conform to the prescribed two-hour preflight check-in regulations.

As it turned out, the drive took less than an hour, thanks to the convenient new airport exit off I-275. With bags tagged to Juneau, Alaska, our ultimate destination, there was plenty of time to buy coffee and magazines before riding the shiny red People Mover to the departure gate. All was well with the world.

Everything was quite effortlessly accomplished, as the Sunday morning airport action was minimal and our DC-10 only lightly subscribed, allowing for the unexpected luxury of stretching out, sleeping, or kibitzing with friends. The trip couldn't have been off to a better start.

But airline travel these days is rarely without its hiccups. So when we didn't pull out of the gate at the appointed hour ... and departure time started drifting round the dial ... we suspected something was amiss. A mechanical glitch, perhaps?

It eventually transpired that a piece of engine cowling on the right side of the aircraft was out of sync and the captain, after his obligatory walk-around, reported that he wouldn't/shouldn't/couldn't fly the plane in its current state. But brave efforts were being made to: A) repair it, B) get a part from another plane, or C) punt.

Two hours and lots of engineering hithers and thithers later (and to Northwest's credit, regular updates from the flight deck), it was decided that C) was the correct answer. The good news was that another aircraft was available to take us on to Seattle. So, like good little lambs, we all deplaned, reported to the new gate and substitute Flight No. 281 eventually lifted off at 1:05 p.m., four hours behind schedule.

This meant that it took the better part of a day to get to Seattle, that we missed our onward connecting flight to Juneau, and that with only cereal, bagels, and a banana for an overdue breakfast and/or weird lunch, it was a very hungry, tired, and frustrated bunch of travelers who traipsed through Seattle's Tacoma airport at 2 p.m. local time with food on their minds ... and eight additional sitting and flying hours in their futures.

Getting there, in this case, was sadly not half the fun! It had, in fact, been the worst of times.

Then to compound an already grizzly situation (see how Alaskan terminology is already creeping in!) the whole group was red flagged by a computer and bag-and-body searched from head to toe. It seems flight alterations are highly suspect - even if involuntary!

It must have been obvious to anyone with half a brain in the Seattle airport security system that 22 exhausted wanderers from Ohio were hardly likely to interfere in any way with an Alaskan Airways jet on its way to Ketchikan! But these days, computer technology apparently trumps brainpower.


And then, suddenly it was Monday morning in Juneau. And the very best of times, as we took a ride in a 36-passenger boat up the incredibly beautiful Tracy Arm Fjord to the Sawyer Glacier with a congenial and experienced Captain Steve and his two young assistants. The trip would turn out to be one the greatest sightseeing experiences of our collective lives!

A tiny boat in a very tall fjord, past translucently blue icebergs alive with seals. Snuggling up to a glacier that crashed and calved before our eyes, and waterfalls cascading dramatically down steep snow-capped mountains through forests of pine.

Homeward bound, there was an awesome and unexpected encounter with a pod of 36 Orca - aka killer - whales, which stayed with us for the better part of an hour, alternately porpoising, breaching, spyhopping (raising heads clear of the water), and lobtailing (slapping the surface with their tails).

There can be few more thrilling or awesome sights than watching these black-and-white, 20-foot, six-ton behemoths up close from a very small boat.

Finally, as we returned to harbor, a brilliant rainbow appeared over the fjord, a fitting climax to an incredible brush with nature and an omen, perhaps, of what we had coming in the next two weeks in this “Last Frontier.”

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