Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Garden Saved By Two Dead Ducks

Dad and I spent our final day of the cruise on a shore excursion to the famous (though we had never heard of them) Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island in British Columbia.

Victoria is a lovely city bordered by mountains on three sides with extremely mild temperatures. We were told it seldom gets warmer than 90 degrees and hardly ever goes below 32. Snow usually melts within 12 hours. Our guide joked that it's an island of "flower beds, newlyweds, and nearly deads." He told us that one newspaper quipped, "Victoria Island is where the elderly go to spend time with their grandparents."

Robert Butchart and his wife, Jennie, began manufacturing cement in the late 1800s and became the largest provider of the material on the West Coast. They moved to Victoria in the early 1900s because Robert had discovered a limestone quarry - an essential element in cement manufacturing in those days - and they built their home on the property. The story, passed down to his grandchildren we were told, goes that Robert enjoyed collecting birds. He had a favorite pair of Woodland Ducks that he had purchased and transported all the way from Germany.

One year, while traveling in Europe, the family received word that both of their Woodland Ducks had died after an eagle attack. Since they were already mostly there, Robert insisted on going to Germany to purchase new ducks.

Jennie would hear nothing of it, insisting that if they went, they would miss their steamship home. Robert put his foot down and insisted and off the family trekked to Germany. After making his purchase and arranging for the ducks to be sent back to British Columbia, the family rushed back to England only to find that they had missed their boat by two days. So they had to make alternate travel arrangements.

What boat did they miss? The Titanic.

And that's how two dead ducks saved the Butchart Gardens. What happened is the quarry turned out to be not all that large and Robert opened a new one a few years later, leaving Jennie stuck with the problem of a huge, empty quarry in her backyard. One day a friend remarked to her that she would *never* be able to do anything with that eyesore and Jennie Butchart took that as a challenge. She had farmers truck in tons and tons of fill dirt and began planting flowers, of which she was something of a collector and aficionado. She hung by her toes to plant ivy along the sides of the quarry walls.

For the first few years, the family would allow whomever wanted to stop by the gardens and admire them, and the family even served them tea.

In 1921 Jennie finished her floral remodeling of the quarry, calling it her "Sunken Garden." In 1926 they took out their tennis courts and used the space for an Italian garden, and three years later the couple transformed their vegetable garden into a rose garden. Ownership of the grounds has remained in the Butchart family ever since.

I've put many photos of what are possibly the most colorful and diverse gardens I have EVER seen on my Facebook page. Now, mind you, I'm not a flower guy. I know pretty much nothing about them. If you ask me what my wife's favorite flower is, I'm likely to say, "Pillsbury." But these gardens were just lovely to gaze upon. A balm to the soul, even.

We're told that during the tourist season, the family now employs 600 people. 100 of them are gardeners and 55 of those are *master* gardeners. The head gardener and his assistant live right on the grounds. They change the displays five times every year - once each season and a second time between Winter and Spring.

= = = = =

Pop and I fly home tomorrow and I may add a few more photos I took with my cell phone but have no way to get them onto a computer while I'm in digital roam. So check back at Facebook in a day or two.

It's been a great trip. I've eaten at least three kinds of chowder, had so much salmon I feel like swimming upstream, had a taste of kelp marmalade, and ridden on two boats, countless buses, and one tram. I've hiked halfway up the side of a mountain, pushed my father in a wheelchair around 55 acres of gardens, and walked at least three miles around the ship. I've seen so much beauty in the wilderness that my eyes may never hurt again, and I've heard so many foreign languages I feel like we've visited the Tower of Babel.

And none of it would have been possible without the kindness, generosity, and genuine love for family shown by my father.

Thanks, Dad.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Pop quiz: What kind of salmon does the ring finger signify? Told you I'd be testing!

Thursday, September 05, 2013

My Way, Your Way, Skagway

Today the Alaska weather we expected all along returned. On the dock in Skagway, at sea level, there was a heavy overcast of clouds and a steady surge of 35-mph winds, though the temperature was mild. Skagway, originally called Skagua by the Tlingit, means "wind and whitecaps" and the town was working hard to live up to its name today.

This was one of a small handful of places people came to in the mid-1800s for the Gold Rush. The town has a population of only about 850, but there were over 100,000 here when many used it as a base to launch their trek into the Yukon in search of gold. (For further reading, see my blog entry from 2008 on Liarsville.)

Sarah Palin lived here until she was six years old. Her father taught at the only school in town. Milk is more expensive than gasoline. Many of the people who came for the gold couldn't read but wanted to go to church on Sunday, so each church was painted a different color so folks would know where to go. A few years ago, we were told, the Methodist church painted their building a different color and the town council came along and forced them to paint it back to the original color as it was a historical site. The Tlingit people still own most of the land and rule with a stern, strict hand.

There were two heavily-traveled paths up into the Yukon: The Chilkoot Trail, which was steep and difficult and you had to make approximately 20 trips to get all your supplies to the top. The other was the Whitepass Trail, which was advertised to be easier and more pack animal-friendly, but the fact is it wasn't. A local man was quoted as saying that no matter which trail you took, you wished you'd taken the other. The Whitepass Trail, in fact, killed over 30,000 beasts of burden and became known as "Dead Horse Trail." When the railroad came to Skagway, it appropriated over 80% of the Whitepass Trail for its tracks.

When you reached Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would weigh your goods and foodstuffs. If you didn't have at least one ton (2,000 pounds), you weren't allowed to go on. So many prospectors were dying of the elements and starvation that they had to impose this rule to do what they could to insure a person's survival.

Today Pop and I climbed onto a tour bus and took a 40-minute trek up the Klondike Highway, through Canadian customs, and into the Yukon. We started at sea level and ascended to 3,292 feet. Interestingly, the weather at the summit was almost the opposite of dockside. The sun was out and the wind was slight, but it was quite cold! (See the photo of the day up top.)

We had come to walk across the suspension bridge over the Tutshi (pronounced "too-shy") River Canyon. The River is considered Class III whitewater ("Difficult") with some Class V Rapids ("potentially fatal"). The government completed the bridge in 2006 and it was purchased by a private owner in 2011; the same man opened a restaurant on the property.

After crossing the gorge and kicking around a bit, we were treated to a bowl of Bison chili (the owner also owns a bison ranch) and a gigantic homemade dinner roll that, frankly, was the best tasting piece of sourdough and carbohydrates I have ever put in my mouth. The chili was too spicy for Pop, and the hosts graciously supplied him with a bowl of chicken noodle soup to go. Sadly, cruise officials made us throw it away and would not allow it to be brought onboard. We knew there were regulations about taking food *off* the ship, but this caught us completely unaware.

When Dad and I were here two years ago, Mom had just recently passed away and Dad, wanting to signify a new chapter of his life, traded in his wedding band for a new ring of gold, onyx, and mother-of-pearl in a triangular design. He wanted to get a "companion ring" to wear on his other hand with a similar design to commemmorate this trip, which he believes will be his last. Well, though small, Skagway has a ton of shops in town and every other one sells jewelry and diamonds. (Pop jokes that "people in Alaska are still mining for gold, but now they're looking for it in the pockets of the tourists.")

He found his ring. It's a silver and onxy beauty with a triangular design. One triangle on each ring points left, and another points right. He says they remind him of Philippians 3:13 - "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead." The verse reminds him of his life after Mom's passing. You can see the rings on my Facebook page.

We had lunch at the Sweet Tooth Cafe in town while waiting for his ring to be sized. This is my third trip here, and I've eaten there each time. It's a great place and everything on the menu is homemade. I highly recommend it. It's become a bit of a Skagway tradition with me. But there was one funny thing that just goes to show what taking three meals a day on a cruise ship will do to you. At the end of the meal, Pop got up and walked away, right out of the cafe. I was inadvertently stuck to pay the bill. (To be fair, he was incredibly embarrassed about the whole thing.)

He's in getting his last acupuncture treatment while I write up this draft, and I sure am praying they work as well as they did on our last cruise together. He deserves it.

We are both a bit flagged after a week of shore activities and are looking forward to our day at sea tomorrow. I'll probably give the blog a rest for a day and come back late Friday night (early Saturday morning for most of you) with a report on our activities at Victoria Island, British Columbia.

We are having a great time and making some fantastic memories together!


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. There's gold in them thar hills!

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Juneau What I Mean

 We pulled into Juneau, Alaska just after sunrise this morning. Juneau is Alaska's capital city and has about 30,000 people living here. It is located on the mainland - unlike so many other cities - and is large enough to have an actual highway running through it. Ketchikan, on the other hand, is on an island and has one road that goes 38 miles in either direction and then dead ends.

Today's expedition was a ride up the Mount Roberts Tramway to a nice plateau with a Nature Center and some hiking trails up and down a good part of Mount Roberts. They also showed a lovely 18-minute documentary about the Tlingit people, who populated this part of Alaska (long before the white man) after migrating north from British Columbia.

The photo up there is a selfie of me on the trail with Mount Juneau in the background.

Joe Juneau and Richard Harris were the two explorers who were first led to the gold in the area by a friendly Tlingit chief. For a brief time, the city was known as Harrisburg, and then Rockwell, and then in 1881 the miners met and voted to name the town after Juneau.

The AJ Mines (Alaska, Juneau) were built into the side of Mount Roberts and we were told today that before they closed in 1944 they pulled $88 million worth of gold out of the hills, or about $5 billion in today's economy. For every ounce of gold discovered, 200 pounds of rock and earth were moved. The mine doors have since been sealed over but there are still 300 miles of tunnels inside the mountain.

The tram we took (see picture) was opened in 1996 and ascends from sea level to 1,800 feet

in six minutes. It is the steepest tram run in all of North America. At the top is a snack shop, an extensively stocked gift shop, a small movie theater, a restaurant, and a Nature Center with additional gifts and maps of the trails. Pop walked about a quarter of a mile but found the ascent too steep for his 81-year old using-a-cane-gait. So he rested and shopped while I did the half mile ascent and loop on my own.

After lunch and his second acupuncture session, we stood on our balcony while the ship entered the Tracy Arm of the Inside Passage and slowly progressed to the Sawyer Glacier at the end of the Arm. Let me tell you, the Inside Passage is so jaw-droppingly beautiful it's nearly worth taking the cruise just for that.

I have been putting up photos on my Facebook page. Click the link in red here or the "badge" over to the right. The photos just don't do justice to the majesty and awesome beauty of this land.

Everyone should come to Alaska. Just looking at the views are good for the soul.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. I tell people "God was having a good day when He made Alaska.".

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Play Misty Fjords Me

We arrived today in Ketchikan, "Alaska's First City." Now it's the fifth largest, but still the "Salmon Capital of the World."

And the salmon are running, inexorably fighting their collective way upstream to spawn and die. You can see them jumping up out of the rivers and streams here all day long. Every part of the salmon is used, even the heads. (They are crushed and pressed down into Omega-3 oils, what the natives call "liquid gold.")

There are five different kinds of salmon and they each go by two different names. We were taught an easy way to remember them (see photo).

  • Thumb - rhymes with chum. (Chum Salmon) And your chum is your friend. And a man's best friend is his dog (Dog salmon).
  • Index finger - you can use your index finger to "sock your eye out" (Sockeye salmon). Doing that would leave your eye red (Red salmon).
  • Middle finger - your middle finger is the longest. It's the "king" of fingers (King salmon). It could also be called the "chief" of your fingers. The word for chief in the native tongue is Chinook (Chinook salmon).
  • Ring finger - you wear a ring on this finger, and it's often made of silver (Silver salmon). The Lone Ranger's horse was named Silver. So think, "Coho Silver, Awaaaaaay!" (Coho salmon)
  • Little finger - also called your pinky (Pink salmon). This type of salmon is also called Humpy salmon. There's just no mnemonic for that one, sorry.

So today we went out into the Misty Fjords National Wilderness Monument. That's Dad and I on the boat up top. Check out my blog's Facebook link (at far right) for more pictures. We left early in the morning and were afraid for quite awhile that they would be the "Foggy Fjords." (See other photo)

President Theodore Roosevelt declared this part of Alaska a national wilderness in 1940. By doing so, no humans are allowed to live there. Man is only a visitor here. Explorer George Vancouver first charted these waters, looking for a passage to the Northwest in the mid-1800s. His maps were so accurate we were told they were used until GPS services made them obsolete a century later.

It was unnaturally bright, sunny and warm day in Ketchikan. The city gets between 200-300 days of rain every year. The two previous trips I've made here were always overcast, misty/rainy and quite gloomy. Today we were told the natives prefer their gray, "watercolor sky" to this sunny stuff. Two weeks of no rain here officially qualifies as a drought and the streams dry right up and it's very, very bad for the salmon. And what's bad for the salmon is bad for Ketchikan.

Back onboard, Pop got his first acupuncture treatment, which has become a bit of a cruise treat for him (and quite efficacious, as well). While I was waiting for him, I sat in the card/game room and read and thought a bit and just observed. A cruise ship is a whole lot like a mini-United Nations without the politics. I watched a Chinese couple play Chinese Checkers, an Indian family play Monopoly, and a Korean pair play cards. The crew is equally diverse. I make it a point to read everyone's badge, which lists their home country. I've seen South Africa, India, Thailand, Philippines, Canada, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, and just about every place in between.

Forget America ... if you want to experience a *true* melting pot, take a cruise.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. There will be a pop quiz on those salmon names at the end of the week.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

More Travels with Dad

Courtesy of Dad's travel bug, I find myself once again on a cruise ship with my now 81-year old father, making our second - I may as well call it a pilgrimage - to the fair Alaskan cities of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, with a run up the Tracy Arm of the Inside Passage and a final stop at Victoria Island in British Columbia.

I love it.

We've only been onboard for two days and already I've eaten enough fish that I have the urge to go look for Nemo.

We left Seattle, Washington this past Saturday afternoon. We have spent today on the Pacific Ocean. This time around Pop sprang for a stateroom with a balcony and let me tell you, I will never cruise again without one. It's heavenly and we've already spotted two whales (for free!).

The only downside is the bed situation. The room is fairly crowded with two beds, a sofa, a coffee table, a small desk, and a nightstand. And about 12 inches of room between the end of the beds and the wall, and between the two beds, themselves. Let me give you an idea of how close together we are sleeping: I could reach over and wipe Pop's nose. And vice-versa.

Now my father is a generous, kind, loving and compassionate man with a terrific sense of humor, so believe me when I say that this one quirk of his does nothing to detract from who he is as a person ... but he is a snorer.

No, let me rephrase that. He is a world class manufacturing plant of snore. If snoring were an Olympic event, my father would be awarded the Gold Medal every time. Some of his snores would register on the Richter Scale. He is to snoring what Bill Gates is to Microsoft. If he's sleeping, he's snoring. If he's not snoring, in fact, I worry that he's not sleeping well.

And it's all about 12 inches from my ears. Yeah.

Fortunately, I have my own defense: I snore, too. Or so I've been told. (My wife's all, like, "Hah! How do *you* like it???" No sympathy from that quarter.) The only reason I know so much about Pop's nighttime malady is he goes to bed before I do while I stay up and do this Internet thing and not waste his valuable time waiting for me to do it while he's awake.

So we are once again on the road, reliant only upon the grace of God, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and each other. More as the days go by. Stay tuned.


Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. On cruise ships, you don't greet each other with the standard "how are you?" You begin with, "So where are  y'all from?"