Alaska for a gimp!! And, an old gimp at that. Yes, why not? Before I became an amputee, on peritoneal dialysis (no machines) and a member of the zipper club (triple by-pass) with a pacemaker, I dreamed of the Alaska Cruises. Not just those “love boat” fancy cruises, but a real adventure. On the small ship inland cruise lines, where you have no more than 100 passengers on the ship, wonderful meals, and an opportunity to meet all the passengers. I wanted to see up close and personal, polar bears, seals, dolphins, and a whale or two. I wanted to come home with eight rolls of film, mostly of glaciers.
After researching a gaggle of travel agents, both private and franchised; a giggle of travel brochures and shipping lines, I was very discouraged. The moment I mentioned “wheelchair” you could hear the silence. Then a phlegmy “Ahem!,” and “How can you get on the ship, you can’t get around the ship to see the sights.” – I’m sure we have heard all the excuses.
So, I contacted my friend, Diane Jamison, of Nexus Travel in Crofton, Maryland. She had recently gone through some hoops to get me to a convention at one of the worst handicapped accessible airports in the country, Cincinnati. Diane got to work immediately and called a few 800 numbers. Before they could say “we’ll send you the brochure,” she went into her spiel – “my client is handicapped, she uses a wheelchair and she needs to have enough room to get through the cabin door. She also has a service dog.”
She had a few O-dears, especially from some of the larger cruise lines, but then Cruise West of Seattle Washington said, “Well, we’ve never had a service dog, would you accept a call from our ‘nurse/travel’ consultant so we can get further information?” Mrs. Jamison gave my e-mail and phone number, and the next day I received a call from Ms. Karen Cooper, from Cruise West. She asked me about my health and disabilities. But, her first statement was “we will be delighted to have you on any of our ships, and we will make certain the cabin you select will be completely suitable to your needs.” She then asked about my service dog, Tealy.
Tealy is a certified (by the Delta Society, the national organization for service dog owners and trainers) service assistant animal. He is an English Black Labrador, two and ½ years old and 85 pounds of loving dog. He wears a mobility harness and a pull lead to assist me when I am walking, or if I need help pushing the wheelchair up curbs, hills or over rugs. Tealy was privately trained, and I could not walk or be at all independent without him.
Ms. Cooper asked if she could call me back in about an hour, as she wanted to consult the Captain. His only comment, “we’ve never had a service dog on board, but we are thrilled to have Tealy, and I will be going out today to buy him his own plastic, red, fire hydrant.” The Captain did suggest that I select (at no additional cost) a cabin located on the outside lounge deck, which would allow me to be closer to the sights and action.
I was sent complete descriptions of the cabins, giving size and space for the door entrance and shower, with shower seat. A special needs questionnaire, asked if I would require any assistance getting about the boat, as they would provide employees to “lift me up to the front of the ship so I could see the sights.” As for getting my 3 boxes of 2.5 dialysis solution on board and 25 pound bag of dog food, no problem. Everything can be shipped to their cruise line’s warehouse in Seattle. Pets.com will send the dog food, and my dialysis supplier will pack and send the solution. It will be placed so that it won’t be in my way in the cabin.
The information they sent me was tantalizing. The side trips, including kayaking, while costing a bit more, are experiences I am going to try and do. There are native walking tours, Russian Church tours, all with native guides – everything that I will be capable of doing. “And, anything we can help you with, please just ask, including a personal assistant for the tours.” said Ms. Cooper.
Other cruise lines offer help for their handicapped passengers, however, Cruise West was the only one that had someone personally call and speak with me, to review and answer any questions I had.
Payment has been sent, I’ve got a “rain coat” for Tealy, just in case of bad weather, and of course, some new duds for myself. The excitement builds as we await our 7:45 departure from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. on April 29th.
Part II: The Cruise
The LOL (little old lady) gimp made it. From Washington DC, to Seattle Washington, then aboard Alaska Cruise West, one of the small ship inland cruises.
First, let’s review about me. I am a senior, an amputee, left leg, below the knee, a diabetic and use peritoneal dialysis. My first article told about sending three boxes of dialysis solution and two packages of dry dog food for Tealy, my Service Dog. He is a mobility Service Animal, trained to help me walk and to help pull a wheelchair a short distance if necessary.
Cruise West is not one of the ‘party’ ships. No gambling, or dressing for dinner. Just wonderful food, plenty of wildlife, terrific nature, and great tours. Luray Kletcher, my ‘companion traveler’ and I wanted adventure and we found it. Black bears, mountain goats, plenty of bald eagles, in flight with those magnificent wing spans, and at the Raptor Wildlife Rescue center. Porpoises would follow our ship, diving up and down in front of the bow.
Luray and I had a wonderful adventure. However, we had a serious problem. After completing the “special needs information form” requested by Cruise West, and discussing, via e-mail and phone, my needs and what my handicapping condition was. I was informed by their special needs director, Karen Cooper, that they would provide a shower seat, and that all the crew members would be advised of my condition and able to assist me.
Ms. Cooper did not do her job, she failed to inform any member of the crew, or the captain that there was a handicapped person on board, she failed to provide a portable shower seat. When I arrived, the gang plank from the pier down to the ship was at an extreme incline. As I tried to get down the gang plank, my artificial leg would not handle the descent. The crew did not know how or what to do to help me, and I was unsure of what to do also. I was able to get Tealy to help, by leaning my entire weight on his harness and back, he would move two paws and then stop while I scootched a foot at a time. Suddenly, one of the crew members, yelled “come on doggie, come doggie”. This immediately changed Tealy’s concentration from me towards this crew member. I lost my balance, and fell, head first, onto the railing. I had to scream at the crew members not to talk to the dog, or distract him while I was trying to get down the gang plank. They had no concept of what a Service Animal was to do.
Then I had to immediately complain about no shower seat. Realizing there was a very ‘upset’ passenger, the first mate contacted me and we went over the procedure I had followed to inform the ship’s management of my handicapped condition and my needs. The first mate told me they were never informed of any special needs. However, they did their very best to help me; they found a “shower seat,” a bar stool that moved whenever the ship moved. I could only take a shower when the boat was in dock.
The crew was very upset that Seattle office management did not perform their job. The captain authorized one of the crew to assist me as my own tour pusher. The assistant tour director pushed me in my wheelchair on all the walking tours. Richard, also helped me on and off the tour busses. Once the captain and crew realized I had done my part of the ‘job’ and they had not, they were outstanding in their efforts to help me in any way possible.
One very special way was with Tealy. Unfortunately, Tealy is “grass trained” only. I tried – we walked him up and down outside our cabin, pleading with him to do his dog business; twenty hours, nothing. The other passengers would ask me “has Tealy done?” And I’d say no,. not yet. This went on for 26 hours and nothing. By this time I was hysterical, you can’t just tell the Captain to pull over to the side of the road at the next gas station, you need to walk the dog. There is only water, mountains and more water. It would be 48 hours before we touched land.
Mark, my favorite crew member, said he’d handle this. He ran Tealy around the 3rd Deck, 7 times, (1/2 mile) at a good jogging speed. Mark then announced in the lounge that we’d had success; in fact, Tealy almost sunk the ship. That night, outside the dining area, on the ship’s chart, was marked, along with where we had been, the fact that “Tealy Made Doo-Doo” and an arrow.
After traveling through a very cold portion of British Columbia, with wind chill factors below 20 degrees, Prince Frederick Island, we were blessed with Alaska weather in the 50’s and sunny. Our first stop was in Ketchikan, the rainiest city in the Untied States.
Ketchikan is a captivating little city, with only 14 miles of roadway. However, it is the only city in the U.S.A. that has a museum devoted to a famous “lady of the evening”. Madam Dolly, opened business in a house in l900, she paid $700.00 dollars, and paid off the loan the first season. Twentyone other “ladies” resided with Dolly from l900 until 1954, when Alaska banned prostitution. Dolly was so well loved by the people of Ketchikan, when she died (at age 94) she willed her house to the City, and they renovated it, creating a museum of Dolly’s famous ladies.
Ketchikan has just realized the value of the tourist, now that fishing and lumbering is not longer profitable. They made 88% of their total income from the tourist industry, and, they are very away of the needs of the handicapped. A beautiful hotel, (operated by Westpark) owned by the Native American community, is completely equipped for the handicapped. They are further repairing the sidewalks to make them even more accessible.
A great tour was The Native American Walking Tour, with our native guide, Joe Williams. Mr. Williams, a former fisherman, described Indian life of typical of his grandfather’s time, his father’s time and now his son’s time, with lots of colorful stories. For example, there are two tribes of Indians – Eagle and Raven. When a family Totem is ordered, an Eagle tribal member carves for a Raven tribal member and vice versa. Halfway through the completion of the Totem, the wife of the man ordering the totem has to stand under this huge, 8 to 20 foot -half carved Totem; the carver then asks for payment. If the customer does not pay, the log is dropped on his wife’s head. Mr. Williams explained that things are a bit different today… now his credit card company is contacted.
Our next adventure was Misty Bay and Tracy Arms inlet. This is between two mountains, where the inlet lake water is like glass. Fantastic reflections of mountains and water, waterfalls that the bow of the ship goes through. Misty Bay has a fog like mist between the water and top of the mountains. In Tracy Arms, a channel, we encountered our first Glacier.
Tracy Arms is an enclosed lake, with a glacier at the end. Half way down the lake the ship encounters icebergs; lots of icebergs that clunk loudly against the ship. Some are blue, others white and some brown, the brown ones are from the dirt moved along by the glacier ice. One of the giant icebergs looked exactly like the Pepsi Polar Bear, all he needed was the bottle of Pepsi (or is it Coke?).
All along the sides of the inland lake are mountains, with snow capped tops. Occasionally, you would see avalanches flowing down the sides of some of the snow covered mountains. You find yourself spending hours on deck, just glued to the scenery.
At Glacier Bay National Park, a Park Ranger boards the ship. Mrs. Dana Martin, has been a park ranger for over 20 years and has written about and researched Killer Whales, and the birds of the Glacier Bay. She spent the entire day with us, pointing out various birds, – the cute little black puffins, with white heads and orange beaks, that scoot across the water before taking flight.
From Glacier Bay, we traveled to Sitka, visiting the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Raptor Center. At this wildlife center they care for injured and sick Bald Eagles, Hawks, Owls and other raptor’s. There are some that can no longer fly and they are in an outdoor forest-like area that you can walk through.
Tealy was thrilled with the birds, especially since he is a Lab. We finished our wonderful vacation in Juneau. Our final destination was the Gold Belt hotel, (not handicapped accessible, the equipment they use for grab bars and shower seats were damaged). However, the food was excellent. Juneau’s tours take you right past the Governor’s house, located right on the main street in Juneau, so close you could walk up to the front door and knock. The Governor is often seen Jogging along Juneau’s main street.
Out at the end of Juneau is Mendenhaul Glacier, the only Glacier that you can walk along the street and actually touch the ice. Mendenhaul Glacier is increasing, spreading up to the pathway towards the visitor’s center. It is quite something to experience.
I would recommend anyone who is moderately handicapped, or elderly and able to walk about somewhat, to take this cruise and use Cruise West. The ship is American owned and the Crew are all Americans. They are anxious to please and make sure you have a wonderful travel adventure. The food is outstanding, and often, the tours are ready and waiting when you dock. Park and Forest Rangers are brought on board ship to help explain Alaska and the places you visit, enhancing the experience even further.
However, as described, accommodations were not ideal and I am shocked that Washington State (where the ship is registered) has allowed Cruise West to go about business without even providing grab bars in their public rest areas; nor to provide even reasonable modifications to their handicapped rooms. Although their heart is in the right place, Cruise West has a way to go in implementing their accessibility goals. I, for one, am pulling for them to do so successfully.