North to Alaska – Part 3: The Final Days and Some Observations

by Bob Sparrow

Another ‘no-photo’ of Mt. Denali

After our seventh day at sea, not seeing whales, dolphins or sea lions, we pull into Whittier, which is the port for Anchorage, for our three days on land where we won’t see moose, but will see a bear and some eagles.  Actually, I enjoyed the land portion of our trip more than our time at sea.  The three days on land gave us a real sense of what Alaska is all about.  The cruise part visited three coastal ports, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway which are all fairly similar – tourist towns filled with bars and gift shops; and the rain in every port didn’t help! Perhaps being able to take the scenic train ride out of Skagway might have made a difference, but for now my YouTube train experience will have to do.

The two-day, 417-mile trip from Whittier to Fairbanks starts with a train ride to about the halfway point at McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.  From there we take a bus on a four-hour ‘wilderness tour’ that the driver/guide made really interesting and informative.  This is where we saw a bear fairly close up as well as several caribou and a few bald eagles.  We stopped along the way and had a native Athabaskan give us a lecture on all the plants that surrounded us and how each was used for a different medicinal purpose.  The next day we were on a bus through Denali National Park, staying at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.  That evening we went to a dinner with a show that describes the climbing of Mt. Denali in song – it was quite good.

Sled dog farm along the river

The next day we went on a riverboat, which was probably the highlight of the trip for me, as we stopped to visit a sled dog farm and heard from the trainer and watched a demonstration of the dogs pulling a sled on wheels – they are truly amazing dogs!! On land we stopped at an Athabaskan village where we heard a presentation about life amongst this native tribe – very interesting!

We then move on to Fairbanks and on our last night of the tour we are told that, if the clouds go away, the ‘Northern Lights’ would be visible around midnight, so we asked the front desk clerk to give us a call if they were visible . . . big surprise, no call.

Some observations

  • Princess ships are beautiful, the staff is gracious, the entertainment is great, but the quality of food, or lack thereof, will keep me from sailing on Princess again.
  • We discovered, too late, that in Alaska, August is considered ‘fall’ and the rainy season – we can definitely confirm that. I’d recommend traveling in late May to early June
  • In August the sun sets just before 10:00 pm, which for us meant that we got to actually see the rain until almost midnight
  • The highest mountain on the north American continent, Mt. McKinley, had its name changed to Mt. Denali in 2017, we

    We’re told this is what Mt. Denali looks like

    were hoping to catch a glimpse of it at some point, but we were to learn that only about 25-30% of people spending a week or two in Alaska, will see Mt. Denali. So here’s a photo, not taken by me, so we all can see what it really looks like.

  • I asked almost every one of our servers or workers that I came in contact with, where they came from and how long they’d been working in Alaska. People come from all over the world to work in Alaska for the summer, very few stay there through the winters, where temperatures can get to 60 to 70 below zero.
  • If you’re thinking about a similar trip to Alaska that we just did, I’d recommend doing it in reverse order – do the land portion first as I think it gives you a better sense of Alaska, then relax and do the cruise – preferably not on Princess, if you like food.

Some random photos

The bear we saw

The Pacellis, singer, Sarah Shelton, the Sparrows

Native Athabaskan dress

Iditarod dog in training

North to Alaska – Park 2: The Hits Just Keep on Comin’

by Bob Sparrow

Beautiful Skagway, Alaska

Skagway when we arrived

Next stop is Skagway and from the ship it’s hard to tell Skagway from Juneau or Ketchikan as the accompanying photos would indicate.   There is no deep-water port next to Skagway, so we must anchor off-shore and take ‘tenders’ into port.  Unfortunately, it’s windy and rainy and the seas are too rough to run the tenders the morning we arrive.  We are concerned about getting ashore, as we have a very cool excursion planned on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, which was established during the 1890s Yukon Gold Rush – the scenery is said to be spectacular!

As we wait in the morning mist and rain, the wind finally dies down and we get word that the tenders are now running.  We are excited and among the first to get ferried ashore.  We find the train and are escorted to our car and as we’re reading the brochure on what an awesome adventure we’re about to go on, the conductor comes on board and tells us that there has been a rockslide up ahead that has covered the track and that there will be no tour today!   The Alaska gods seem to not be shinning on us this trip!  I later watched the train trip on YouTube – looks fun!  I’ll never know!!  We walk the main street of town and have lunch at the Red Onion, a bar that was formerly a brothel (I think every bar was a brothel back in the day), and head back to the ship.

Glacier Bay on a good day

Glacier Bay for us

Our next two days are at sea as we cruise in Glacier Bay and College Fjord, working our way north to Whittier, the coastal port for Anchorage.   In spite of the low cloud cover and rain, we do see a number of glaciers and in fact, see a couple of calvings.  I have to say that I wasn’t as impressed, as I thought I would be surrounded by white and looking up at massive glaciers.  Our ship put us at eye-level or above the glacier and the glaciers lost some of their majesty, perhaps because the mist and clouds covered the surrounding mountains, it seemed less grand.  As I read the history of Glacier Bay, I discovered that in the 1700s the whole bay used to be a glacier.  So, looking at the where the glacier was in certain years, made it a bit sad, as it’s gradually receding and will eventually be gone!

Mt. Denali

Mt. Denali is rumored to be there

Once in Whittier, we board a train and head to Denali National Park in hopes of seeing Mt. Denali.  If Mt. Denali sounds foreign to you, you may remember this mountain as Mt. McKinley.  It is the tallest mountain on the north American continent at 20,310 feet in altitude.  The name was changed by President Obama who asserted that the name should go back to its original Athabaskan name meaning ‘the great one’.  But none of the local refer to it as either Denali or McKinley, they just refer to it as ‘The Mountain’.   Of course, it was never visible to us at any point during our trip, as we find out that only about 25-30% of tourists get to see it, the rest of us see nothing but clouds.

Christmas in August

One of the first things we notice when we check into the Denali Wilderness Lodge is a Christmas tree in the foyer – fully decorated and other yule time trimmings around the hotel.  Those of you who have traveled to a National Park in August, know why the tree is there.  For those who haven’t, and previous to this, I was one of them, I’ll explain.

On August 24th, 1912, a sudden, unexpected snowstorm stranded a group of travelers in Yellowstone National Park. The travelers, making the best of the situation, decided to celebrate Christmas by singing carols and preparing a sumptuous Christmas feast. They enjoyed the celebration so much that a tradition was born.

Next time: North to Alaska Part 3: The Final Days and Some Alaska Dos and Don’ts

North to Alaska!

by Bob Sparrow

Part 1 – Nowadays Getting There is Not Half the Fun!

At a time when Covid is still dictating travel protocols, we chose to further complicate our cruise to Alaska by picking up our ship in Vancouver, Canada; thus making us enter a foreign country in order to get on a ship to sail to the United States!  So, we ran the risk of not only having to be Covid-free to enter Canada and Covid-free to re-enter the United States, but having to be Covid-free to get on board the ship.  Fortunately, the four of us, Bob & Jeannie Pacelli and Linda and I, studied diligently and passed all our requisite tests.

The travelers

We spent the night in Vancouver and had an easy 15-minute walk to the ship the next day.  It was a pleasant day, as it turned out one of the few days of our trip where rain was not a factor.  On board, we spend those first several hours exploring our magnificent ship, the Majestic Princess, with a capacity of 3,560 passengers.  Alaska is often referred to as the “Land of the Midnight Sun” because it can get up to 22 hours of sunlight a day, however, as we were to learn, sometimes it gets no sun at all – like our first full day at sea – we got liquid sunshine, the kind for which this part of the world is known.  I’ve attached a photo from our first full day at sea that shows the visibility from our balcony – about 100 yards.  But we weren’t worried . . . yet; we had seven days on board and another three day of land tours, so we figured the clouds, fog and rain would eventually move along and we’d be able to take in those amazing views that matched all the photos in the brochure.  And besides, we had a whole ship to explore.

So, while sailing to our first stop, Ketchikan, we found lots of things to do, lots of shows, lots of interesting lectures, lots of games, both in the casino and out, and fortunately, lots of bars to ensure we got our money’s worth on our ‘unlimited drink package’ – a perk we thought we’d be denied based on our predilection for alcohol consumption on previous cruises!

Chamber of Commerce photo of Ketchikan

Ketchikan the day we arrived

We woke up on Sunday morning docked in Ketchikan, a town of 13,000 that can only be reached by sea or air, no roads coming in or out.  We schedule a morning tour of the city, which was quite interesting.  Our guide was a young lady who was a native Alaskan of the Tlingit tribe, she was born and raised in Ketchikan and did a great job of walking us through the small downtown area and explaining everything we saw from the totem poles to the brothels.  After our walk we stopped and had a beer at a local pub on the water and ran into the lead female singer from the show we saw on the boat the previous night.  She sat and had a couple of beers with us and was most delightful.  A mid-afternoon departure dictated that we get back on board early, so back on board we went and embarked for Juneau.

Juneau Chamber of Commerce photo

Juneau the day we arrived

‘Geared up’ for the Mendenhall float trip

We woke up Tuesday morning as we cruised into downtown Juneau.  We did a quick walk through town, to make sure we could locate the famous ‘Red Dog Saloon’ for a cold one after our day at Mendenhall Glacier.  We signed up for the Mendenhall Glacier float trip – assuming that we were going to ‘float’ up to, or at least in the vicinity of, Mendenhall Glacier.  Not so fast, we did, indeed, see Mendenhall Glacier across Mendenhall Lake, but we were then told to ‘gear up’ and get in our raft.  ‘Gearing up’ included putting on rain pants, rain boots, rain jacket, life preserver and getting in a rubber raft for 12 and float on Mendenhall Lake, AWAY from the Mendenhall Glacier to Mendenhall River and shoot the rapid (more of a float than a shoot) taking us further away from the Mendenhall Glacier.  The float trip lasted for 15 hours . . . or so it seemed, while we froze our Mendenhall’s off.  Travel tip: Don’t do the Mendenhall Glacier Float trip.

When we were mercifully finished, we went back into town and hit the ‘Red Dog Saloon’ and the ‘Lucky Lady’ Irish Pub, trying to wash the taste of that float ride from our minds.  Thankfully we find that a few cocktails have us laughing at our river rafting experience.  The only mediocre show in the ship’s theater we’ve seen, caps off our day to forget.

Next time: Part 2 – And the Hits Just Keep on Coming!


By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Dr. Chapman – Bob’s mentor

Ten years ago, Bob and I changed the format of this blog from a poem-inspired take on the news to its current form of writing a narrative about anything that strikes our fancy.  Some columns have been better than others, but to our credit, in those ten years we have posted something every Monday morning without fail.  We both were inspired and encouraged to write by very good teachers. So, besides our genes and love for college football, we share one other trait: we both love to write.  I say that with some trepidation as one of my favorite writers, Fran Lebowitz, once said, “Anyone who says they love to write is generally not very good at it.”

Bob and I will occasionally have conversations about books and authors that we love.  One author we both admired was Pat Conroy.  We waited anxiously for each new book he wrote and then discussed how it compared to his previous tomes.  From The Water is Wide, to The Great Santini, from The Prince of Tides to Beach Music, Conroy took us on a voyage, sometimes wrenching, but always exquisitely written.  We were devasted when he died in 2016 at age 70 from pancreatic cancer.  No one since has been able to match his ability to take readers on a painful journey, yet enjoy the ride.

This week we lost another of my literary heroes, David McCullough.  If you are a history fan you may have read his best-selling biographies of Truman and John Adams.  But McCullough was more than a presidential historian; he had a wide-ranging scope of interest that led him to write about topics as varied as the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge.  For those of you who have never read one of his books (really, you need to put that on your bucket list), you may be familiar with his baritone voice narrating Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War, the PBS show The American Experience, or the movie, Seabiscuit. McCullough had a unique ability to ferret out interesting stories of previously unknown people and weave them into the type of book that is hard to put down.  He made American history both exciting and interesting.

I loved every one of his books, but I was also intrigued his typewriter and writing shed.  McCullough wrote all of his books on a 1941 Royal Standard typewriter, which he bought second-hand for $25 in 1964.  He thought it was quite an investment at the time but surmised that if he was going to be in the business of writing he needed to have good equipment at home.  He continued to use it for all of his books, long after computers made writing, and re-writing, faster. When asked why he didn’t make the switch to more modern technology he said, “I love putting paper in. I love the way the keys come up and actually print the letters. I love it when I swing that carriage and the bell rings like an old trolley car. I love the feeling of making something with my hands. People tell me if I used a computer, I could go so much faster. Well, I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I should go slower. I don’t think all that fast.”

McCullough’s writing shed, which he referred to as “the bookshop”, might be the envy of anyone who writes, crafts, or simply wants to spend time alone.  It measures eight-by-10 feet. There is no telephone or running water.  Its walls are lined with more than 1,000 books, and the only furniture is a desk, a comfortable chair, and a lamp.  He often said, “Nothing good was ever written in a large room.” McCullough started writing in the shed when his children were young because he didn’t want them to have to tip-toe around the house when he was writing.  Each morning he repaired to the shed for peace and quiet and from that tiny enclave, some of the best chronicling of American history was crafted.

I will miss the anticipation of a new McCullough book, just as I have mourned the loss of any further works from Conroy.  A counterpoint to Ms. Lebowitz, they both loved writing and were thrilled that they attracted a large legion of followers.  How lucky we are that such writers engaged us with stories of fact and fiction. We will not see the likes of them again.

In Memorial – Namaste!

by Bob Sparrow

Patrick’s Memorial Hike

A week ago Sunday I had the pleasure of going on a ‘Memoria Hike’ for our dearly departed friend, Patrick Michael.  It was his birthday and he had passed a year ago April at 62; he is still missed every day, not just by his family, but by our entire neighborhood and a whole host of friends and co-workers.  The hike took place at Peter’s Canyon in Orange and was attended by 20+ neighbors and family, and several dogs!

Like I’m sure most of his friends think, my relationship with Patrick was special – he always had time for everyone, could make or fix anything, although sometimes it cost him a finger or two, lost via his table saw, and he always had a great attitude and a good sense of humor – especially the ability to laugh at himself.

Whitney hikers

After moving into the neighborhood, for years I didn’t really get to know him, or rather knew him as the guy who sang “There once was a man from Nantucket” on a co-ed party bus during the holidays.   At another neighborhood holiday party in 2007, Patrick told us that he had just returned from climbing Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States at 14,505 feet.  This intrigued several of us at the party, so we asked him if he was interested in helping us train and lead another assent of Whitney.  He, of course, agreed – and thus was born, The Trail Boss.

He trained us on local mountains, climbing Mt. San Antonio (Baldy) many times and Mt. San Jacinto out in the desert.  By June 2008 we were ready.

The night before our hike, we camped at Whitney Portal (altitude around 8,400 feet) at the trailhead to Whitney to get acclimated to the altitude. The next day about two-thirds of the way to the summit, one of our hikers, who is diabetic, could go no further due to a blood-sugar imbalanced, typical of Patrick, rather than continue the hike to the summit, he turned around to accompany the hiker back down the mountain, while the rest of us continued on.

Half Dome cables to the top

Me, Kirin, Dom, Patrick in Nepal

Patrick had reintroduced me to hiking and I loved it, so I wanted to do more.  We planned to hike Yosemite’s Half Dome, but the first time we tried, the cables that get you to the very top of the dome, were down, so our hike ended at the base of the final assent.  In 2012, we returned, and with the cables up, we were able to reach the top and take in that spectacular view. After hikes in Joshua Tree National Park and neighboring Ladder’s Canyon, in 2013, Linda had given me a 70th birthday present of a hike in the Himalayas in Nepal (I checked to see if it was a one-way ticket!)  The trip was for two and she thought that my brother, Jack would accompany me, but he was not really into hiking, so my obvious choice was to ask Patrick – I did and he happily agreed.  So, in June of 2014 I enjoyed my favorite hike of all time with one of my best friends of all time.  On that 12-day journey, Patrick and I enjoyed the people and the culture of the Himalayas and shared many amazing experiences.  It’s where we learned the meaning of the original Sanskrit greeting, Namaste – “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”  As a reminder of Patrick, a Namaste plaque and Buddhist prayer flags from Kathmandu, hang in my patio. As an aside, I still stay in contact with, Dom Tamang, our Nepalese guide for that hike.

A year later, Patrick and I, and a childhood friend of Patrick and the friend’s son, did a four-day hike on the Inca Trail to

Patrick at my mirror

Machu Picchu – another spectacular experience that Patrick’s enthusiasm and curiosity made even more special.

After returning from Machu Picchu, we discussed where our ‘next big hike’ should be; I suggested Kilimanjaro, which Patrick, for whatever reasons, wasn’t too keen on initially, but some time later he came to me and said, “Let’s do Kilimanjaro”.  Unfortunately, that box will remain unchecked.

I keep the program from Patrick’s memorial service next to my bathroom mirror, so I see him every morning and am reminded of three things, 1) I was fortunate to have Patrick in my life, 2) I should strive to be more like him, and 3) no one is guaranteed tomorrow – live life to the fullest.








By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

              Torreon Golf Course

Twenty years ago, my husband and I ventured up to Show Low, Arizona, to play golf at the Torreon golf club.  We made the three-hour trip up and back in the same day.  I think we were younger then.  Since that trip, our summer vacations have entailed long car rides with overnight stays in roadside hotels.  The allure of those trips has faded, right along with my arthritic back, so this year we decided to plan for at least one of our summer trips to be closer to home. We were enticed by the idea of finding a summer getaway that was quick and easy. We remembered Torreon and, as luck would have it, I was able to secure a cute house for rent on Airbnb that was right in the heart of the community.  Only after I had rented it did I learn that Torreon had been bought out by the membership and outside play was no longer allowed.  I asked the pro at our club if he could wrangle a reciprocal tee time for us, but after he stopped laughing, he reminded me that summer is their “high season”.

       Our Little House in the Pines

Undaunted by the prospect of not being able to play bad golf, we decided instead we would use this trip to explore the area.  We were hopeful that if we liked it, Show Low might become our “go to” vacation spot.  Easy drive, no overnight stays, and a twenty degree drop in temperature from Scottsdale.  So off we went, Dash the Wonder Dog in tow, for a week of rest, relaxation and exploration.  The house was as advertised – clean, cute and nestled in the pines.  What they had not made clear was that they had no cable or satellite television hook-up.  So, no live tv, including news or, more critically, sports.  We could log into apps to get clips of events, which was better than nothing, but not ideal.  You may be wondering why no live television was such a big deal, when the purpose of our trip was to explore the area. Well, there were two good reasons.

         Downtown Tahoe city

First, the town of Show Low was a bit of a disappointment.  I grew up spending summer weekends in Tahoe City, where we strolled the main street, enjoying the cute shops and restaurants.  As an adult, my husband and I have spent time almost every summer in Mammoth Lakes and Sun Valley.  Again, quaint mountain towns with charm that provide an escape from big city living.  Show Low, on the other hand, was like visiting a suburb of Phoenix.  Every big box store imaginable is there – Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, CVS – as well as a plethora of car dealerships. The main street in town is Highway 60, so there were no nice sidewalks to amble down.  Instead, it was a series of strip centers followed by one of those ubiquitous “big” stores.  The number one rated restaurant in town is Cattlemen’s, which is fine if you’re into eating half a cow “with all the fixin’s”.  My husband also observed that some of the people we saw could possibly be distilling their own liquor.


Absent any charm in Show Low, we ventured 20 minutes down the road to Pinetop-Lakeside.  Both my niece and a good friend had recommended the town, and they were right.  It had much more charm that Show Low, some good hiking trails and a semi-private golf course that looked beautifully kept.  However, even Pinetop has suffered the effects of the economic downturn – there were many closed stores and restaurants in town.  We would have spent more time checking out some of the lakes and trails except for the second factor that interfered with our vacation: the weather.  The temperatures hovered near 90 degrees; a full 10 degrees hotter than normal for July.  At an altitude of over 6300′, the sun felt like it was four feet away.  Hiking mid-day was out of the question.  More importantly, the combination of altitude and heat proved to be too much for Dash.  He paced and panted, without relief.  We spent as much time as possible indoors (thus the need for some television entertainment) but finally, when the temperature was forecasted to reach 95 degrees, we gave up the ghost on Wednesday and went home.

The old adage is true, there is no place like home.  Dash was instantly better when he was returned to his air-conditioned surroundings and his cooling mat with a fan blowing on him.  My husband had the golf and hockey channels to watch, and I resumed cleaning out closets and watching Brit Box dramas.  Fortunately, the weather at home has been below normal, so we can even venture out for walks every morning and could sit outside in the evenings. It was good to get away for a few days, but sadly, our quest to find a nearby summer escape continues.