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If you haven't been on an Alaskan cruise, I'm really hoping you're reading this because you're about to go on one! We've been on a dozen cruises (roughly) as a family, mostly Southern Caribbean itineraries, but we all agree that Alaska has been our favorite, hands down. It's beautiful, pristine, untouched, and unlike anything we've ever experienced. I'm going to double down on that statement and say that experiencing it from the air...well, I don't think we'll ever find anything like it in the whole world. (read more)
BEFORE I START
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Okay, let's talk about the helicopter tour!
TEMSCO HELICOPTER TOUR SKAGWAY
I should start by saying that going up in a helicopter is not something I have ever wanted to do. I'm a terrible flier at the best of times, in the best conditions, and that's when I'm on a big plane. The idea of hopping into a small helicopter...well, it's just never been on my bucket list.
However, when we decided to take an Alaskan cruise, I got outvoted on the tour. My boys (12 and 9) wanted to do it, my dad REALLY wanted to do it, and my mom really wanted to do it so my dad wouldn't have the experience all by himself.
So let's just say that all the boys wanted to do it, and the ladies went along because we love the boys.
Here is our motley crew!
TEMSCO HELICOPTER TOUR SKAGWAY - GETTING THERE FROM THE SHIP
We were on board The Ovation Of The Seas, and we'd had a morning tour on the White Pass Railway. I'll make a post about that very soon, and I'll come back and link it for you.
The time between the tours was really tight. We got back to the ship from the railway tour around noon, and we were supposed to meet up with our guide at 1:15 (I think). Now, the meet up place is some considerable distance from the ship, probably a ten minute walk. We were all starving after the railway, so we hopped back on board to get lunch in the Windjammer before heading out to meet up with the tour.
The problem was that in between the time we boarded the ship to eat, and the time we needed to leave the ship to meet the tour, the gangway had been moved. This meant we got lost and had to wander around for a few minutes trying to find our way off the ship. If you've been on a cruise ship you know they are enormous, and going from one end to the other can be a trek all on its own.
What this meant, in a nutshell, was that I wasn't sure if the tour would wait for us. We had no way to contact them, so we just hustled along and arrived in the designated area about seven minutes late.
This is the first of MANY kudos I'm going to give to the folks at Temsco. Our tour guide not only waited for us, but she had a smile on her face, a super friendly attitude, and didn't chide us at all for our tardiness. Since I'm a stressful person when I'm not on time, I really appreciated this. I hate holding people up, I hate not being punctual, and above all else, I really don't like knowing other people are having to wait on me.
But, they did wait on me, on our entire slow moving group, and we really love them extra for it.
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Once we got to our guide, she led us to a large bus where the rest of the people who booked the tour were already seated. We sat down while she explained that she'd be showing us a video on the short drive to Temsco offices.
The drive really was short. You could actually see the Temsco building from the cruise ship (across the water), so we just drove in a large "U" to get us to the little peninsula we'd be taking off from.
I watched that video raptly! Like I said, bad flier here. Anything I could do to make myself feel a little better was something I was for sure going to do.
The video talked about safety, the importance of sitting where your guide tells you to sit in the helicopter, how to hook up your life vest, etc.
Once we parked and the video finished, we were led inside to a very neat and tidy room that held rows of chairs, lockers, bathrooms, a small gift shop, etc.
We were immediately greeted by another happy person, instructed to sit in the chairs, given a bit more information about our upcoming flights, asked for our shoe size, handed some nifty over shoes, and allowed to store our bags.
You are only allowed to bring stuff that can fit in your pockets. No bags, no large tablets. Think cell phone, and your wallet (though you're not going to need a wallet on the glacier). I left everything in my backpack other than my cellphone and just put in the locker, it was the easiest thing to do.
Side note - You can tip if you want to, so if you want to tip the people on the glacier (they are not at the office with you), bring some cash. They do a great job and are well worth a tip, I promise.
If you're like me and you did not bring cash, give the tip to the person in the office when you get back, and just ask them to split it up. They'll do it for you.
Let's talk about getting on the helicopter.
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As you can see from the picture above, the helicopter is not very large. Now, this is the only helicopter I've ever been in, so maybe it is large. It holds six people (I think), and you need to sit in the order the guide tells you to sit.
She/He is going to ask you your weight. Don't lie, ladies. It's not worth it. Your weight is IMPORTANT! I added five pounds because of clothes, shoes, fear, etc. and I am pretty sure my mom and dad did the same.
You will be given a number, and asked to board the helicopter in the order you are assigned. Don't worry if you aren't sure what to do. There is a guide with you the entire time. They're not gonna let you screw it up, I promise.
We were guided to the helicopter and seated/buckled in. We were then introduced to our pilot. His name was James, he's been flying for 12 years, he's all things amazing, very professional, and if I have another kid, I'll name him after James.
I actually already have a James, but I'd really name another one James, I would.
So we all sit down, James tells us that he's going to be communicating with the powers that be, and that we won't be able to hear anything in our headsets for the time being, but that once we take off, he'll show us how to communicate.
Here are the headsets:
It takes a few minutes for James to get everything ready, but don't rush him. Really, you want James to do a great job!
The engines get LOUD, the helicopter begins to hover, I try not to panic, my 12 year old takes my hand to reassure me, and I think, if nothing else, my 12 year old is holding my hand, right? I mean, he's a tween, affection is not something that's super easy to come by these days, so if it takes a helicopter tour and me being scared to death for 20 minutes, that's okay.
I'll cherish that hand holding for the rest of my life.
Once we're up, James tells my family that they can push a button on the ceiling in order to talk to one another.
This meant that every single time one of my family members reached up to touch the button, I wanted to smack them. True story.
Like I said, I'm a TERRIBLE flier. All I could think was, "Stop touching the buttons. Sit still. Don't talk. Don't breathe. Don't do anything!" They didn't care about my thoughts, or maybe they would have if I'd spoken them out loud, but I was scared, so talking wasn't gonna happen.
My oldest son talked a lot and asked questions, my 9 year old told dumb jokes, and James tolerated all of it nicely.
Here were are flying over the cruise ships that were in port. Lovely, right?
Breathtaking doesn't even begin to describe the scenery. I was literally holding my breath, an odd feeling of terror and euphoria filling my head and making everything seem sharper, crisper, brighter, and more clear.
Clarity, that's a great way to describe what I was feeling. I felt on top of the world, and completely insignificant all in the same moment. I clutched the chicken grip and my son's hand, and with the force of every bit of brain power I could muster, I made sure our flight was safe. :)
I'm joking, sort of. I mean, you know the feeling? Like, if I just look, it'll all be okay.
I even took a video with my oldest. I swear you really can't even tell how scared I am, right?
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The trip to the glacier took only about 15 minutes, and I'm going to say it was a relatively smooth flight. I mean, it's a helicopter, you're going to feel some bumps and dips.
James was calm though, and if he was calm, I was as calm as I was going to be.
We passed over some of the most beautiful terrain I've ever seen. I tried to take pictures, but no matter how I angled my phone, the pictures didn't do justice to the reality of what we were seeing.
It was incredible.
Before we knew it, the glacier was in sight, and we were going to be landing. Here's a video, which I turned off before we actually landed, but you get the idea.
The landing was smooth and uneventful, and before we knew it another happy guide was opening the doors and escorting us out onto the glacier. This is where those nifty overshoes really came in handy. They have studs in the bottom so you can walk more safely on the ice.
The ice itself is not smooth, rather it's sharp and bumpy, so you really don't want to fall down. To that end the guides on the glacier also offer you the option of grabbing some ski poles to take along with you as you walk.
You don't go very far, but you really don't need to. There is so much to see on a glacier, even just in the 50 or so yards we went from the "home base" area.
My sons picked up pieces of ice to check them out before we started our tour with the glacier guides. They also both used ski poles, though I did not.
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We were led away from the helicopters and gathered together in a loose group so we could hear our guide talk about the different features we would be seeing.
One of the things we were most excited about was the glacier water. A friend of mine had done the tour last year and told us that they were allowed to drink from a glacier stream, and that it was one of the highlights of the excursion.
That water tasted amazing!
We saw ice so clear that it literally looked like the rocks frozen inside were suspended in mid air. We saw water features, including the stream we drank from, crevices, little rapids, and pockets of water that you couldn't quite tell if it was water or ice until you were right on it.
Here we are with our poles and our people.
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Here's my oldest standing in front of the glacier river. The water formed a rapid in this area, so what you see behind him is running water, not a solid formation.
The walking portion of the tour is over some questionable terrain, it is a glacier, after all.
I don't mean to say it's dangerous, it's not as long as you listen to your guides, but you do need to be very aware of your surroundings and you REALLY need to listen to your guides. Go slow, take it all in, enjoy the time you have up there, and be careful.
Our guides were close to us the entire time, always quick to point out the safest places to step across water features, and always willing to offer a hand should you need a little extra assistance.
Toward the end of the tour, while we were still out on the glacier, in the middle of all that beauty, our guides offered to take our picture, which was really nice of them! They did a great job, didn't they?
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We were out on the glacier for about a half hour, and that time really just flew by.
Once we'd all soaked in our fill of Meade we were ushered back to the helicopters and loaded with the same care they showed us on the way in.
James was with us on the glacier the whole time, thought I'm not sure if this is normal or not. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the pilot you have on the way in might not be the pilot you have on the way out.
The flight back to the ship was about the same as the flight in, except this time I closed my eyes most of the way. Yes, I should have kept them open, but I figured I got points for keeping them open on the way there.
There is one point in the flight (just before you land) where your pilot has to make a maneuver that turns you around so you're set up correctly on the concrete landing pad. James saw my green face and was nice enough to let me know this maneuver was coming. I really appreciated that.
Once you land you are escorted back into the building where you remove you overshoes, your life vest, grab your belongings, and purchase any souvenirs you might like. I got a super cool shirt.
If you didn't bring cash on the glacier, this is also the point where you would tip your guides. I am not even kidding when I say that I emptied out my wallet and gave them every bit of money I had. It was probably about $100, and that seems like a low tip for five people and the experience we had.
That said, they never pressured for tips, so please don't think you're going to get that sort of feeling from the tour.
Once you're all sorted, you are led back to a bus and given the option of being let off in town, or let off back at the ship. We opted to head into town where we tried some amazing fry bread and picked up some more pins for our lanyards.
After that, you can either walk back to the ship or pay a couple of bucks for a city bus that stops all over the place, including the port.
Well, that's it. My words don't really do it justice, I wish I could let you into my brain so you could experience what I experienced, but I can't, so you'll just have to book your own tour with Temsco.
You won't regret it, of that I am absolutely certain.