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twangster

Ovation Goes North, Way North to Alaska! 11 Nights, May 13, 2019

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Such a gorgeous series of blogs.  Thanks so much for sharing.  It seems like an Alaskan cruise can be an extremely self-reflective and very emotional type of trip.  Perhaps it is the beauty, solitude, peace and tranquility that the location provides.  Quite unlike a Caribbean trip, as it seems more impactful; both introspectively and spiritually?  For some reason, I felt like shedding a tear when I viewed your last few days and closing shots.  Thank you for the "trip" you gave us. It was like watching art! I greatly appreciate your camera work and minimalist narratives.  You are a very talented travel writer in your own right.

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41 minutes ago, twangster said:

 

Texting usually worked but email was challenging and streaming impossible.

Oh, thank you for this information.  We'd purchased Voom S&S for two, but if my husband isn't going to be able to read his news and other sites without frustration, we might as well dump it. I may have to just keep it for me to be able to text with the pet/house sitter though, if that's useable enough, as you indicated.  I'm not used to being disconnected.  This could be difficult! Ha!

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Based on your amazing pictures and not really seeing a huge crowds on deck, do you think a balcony or suite is needed? @Matt mentioned in his review of Alaska that he didn't think a balcony or suite is a must. We are looking at doing another Alaska cruise next year, the only reason I'd get a suite is the service, food but mostly just walking out on the balcony and seeing the sights without having to go far. When we last sailed to Alaska many moons ago. We had the best suite available, we were sailing up the inside passage and we happen to look over the portside to see a huge glacier fall in the ocean, then the thunderous sound off the glacier cracking and rumbling down the side, then the coldest breeze I've ever felt. If we had been in a different cabin we would never have seen it. That was the only time that happened during the cruise. So I'm not sure what suite/cabin to book this time? It's way more expensive then when we first went.

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27 minutes ago, 12thman said:

Based on your amazing pictures and not really seeing a huge crowds on deck, do you thing a balcony or suite is needed? @Matt mentioned in his review of Alaska that he didn't think a balcony or suite is a must. We are looking at doing another Alaska cruise next year, the only reason I'd get a suite is the service, food but mostly just walking out on the balcony and seeing the sights without having to go far. When we last sailed to Alaska many moons ago. We had the best suite available, we were sailing up the inside passage and we happen to look over the portside to see a huge glacier fall in the ocean, then the thunderous sound off the glacier cracking and rumbling down the side, then the coldest breeze I've ever felt. If we had been in a different cabin we would never have seen it. That was the only time that happened during the cruise. So I'm not sure what suite/cabin to book this time? It's way more expensive then when we first went.

I've long been of the opinion that a balcony is not a must to experience Alaska.  Half of my visits were in interior cabins.  The benefit of interior is that you are motivated to be out and around the ship where you will see things you might not on a balcony on only one side of the ship. 

This position was largely based on the huge difference in price between balcony and interior cabins on other ships.  With smaller ships a balcony in Alaska is often twice the price of interior.  Two cruises to Alaska in interior cabins or one cruise with a balcony?  I'd take two cruises any day.

Ovation changes the math and so does a Crown and Anchor balcony discount depending on your status in the Crown and Anchor Society.  Quantum class is mostly balcony cabins with some interior and ocean view.  This abundance of balconies often makes them closer in price to an interior cabin.    Ovation also has obstructed view balconies on deck 6 that are often very close in price to interior.  While an obstructed view balcony can be pretty obstructed, it's still better than interior for the nearly same price.

Each sail date is different so there is no one answer to this question. 

For folks that plan their first Alaskan cruise booking a balcony used to mean spending a lot of money compared to interior.  In that case I'd advise anyone it's better to book an interior cabin if it means you get to experience Alaska sooner rather than waiting years to save up thousands more for a balcony.  Now, with Ovation a balcony is often just a few hundred more.  

Each of us has our own financial situation so this is a personal decision.  If saving money on a cabin means you can splurge a little more on excursions you won't regret it.  My best Alaskan memories occurred outside my cabin, not on my balcony.  Having said that if a balcony is within reach financially and you can still splurge on excursions then a balcony is always a better experience. 

You're unique balcony experience could have equally occurred or been missed by someone with a suite or balcony on the other side of the ship.  I walked out on my balcony and looked down to see a whale 30' off the side of the ship.  Someone with the same balcony cabin on the other side missed that but maybe someone with an interior cabin saw some things I missed because they were in the right place at the right time.  My neighbor walked out two minutes after the whale passed and asked "What did I miss?".  Half of my sunrise and sunset photos and most of my best photos would have been missed if I stayed on my balcony.  

 

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3 minutes ago, twangster said:

I've long been of the opinion that a balcony is not a must to experience Alaska.  Half of my visits were in interior cabins.  The benefit of interior is that you are motivated to be out and around the ship where you will see things you might not on a balcony on only one side of the ship. 

This position was largely based on the huge difference in price between balcony and interior cabins on other ships.  With smaller ships a balcony in Alaska is often twice the price of interior.  Two cruises to Alaska in interior cabins or one cruise with a balcony?  I'd take two cruises any day.

Ovation changes the math and so does a Crown and Anchor balcony discount depending on your status in the Crown and Anchor Society.  Quantum class is mostly balcony cabins with some interior and ocean view.  This abundance of balconies often makes them closer in price to an interior cabin.    Ovation also has obstructed view balconies on deck 6 that are often very close in price to interior.  While an obstructed view balcony can be pretty obstructed, it's still better than interior for the nearly same price.

Each sail date is different so there is no one answer to this question. 

For folks that plan their first Alaskan cruise booking a balcony used to mean spending a lot of money compared to interior.  In that case I'd advise anyone it's better to book an interior cabin if it means you get to experience Alaska sooner rather than waiting years to save up thousands more for a balcony.  Now, with Ovation a balcony is often just a few hundred more.  

Each of us has our own financial situation so this is a personal decision.  If saving money on a cabin means you can splurge a little more on excursions you won't regret it.  My best Alaskan memories occur outside my cabin, not on my balcony.  Having said that if a balcony is within reach financially and you can still splurge on excursions then a balcony is always a better experience. 

You're unique balcony experience could have equally occurred or been missed by someone with a suite or balcony on the other side of the ship.  I walked out on my balcony and looked down to see a whale 30' off the side of the ship.  Someone with the same balcony cabin on the other side missed that but maybe someone with an interior cabin saw somethings I missed too because they were in the right place at the right time.  My neighbor walked out two minutes after the whale passed and asked "What did I miss?".  Half of my sunrise and sunset photos and most of my best photos would have been missed if I stayed on my balcony.  

 

Thanks for your input, yes everyone's situation is different. You make a good point about right place right time. Did forget to mention this cruise is for our anniversary so this is the most important cruise that I can give my wife...she's my life and deserves everything I can give her!! We sailed to Alaska for our honeymoon and I'm hoping to capture a bit of that magic again for her...

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12 minutes ago, 12thman said:

Did forget to mention this cruise is for our anniversary so this is the most important cruise that I can give my wife...she's my life and deserves everything I can give her!!

Ah...I am showing this to Hubby!!! 😉

Very sweet.....

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@twangster, thanks once again for an amazing live blog! I'm going to be honest, if I wasn't already booked in August 2020 for a trip that is probably not going to be offered again (and that's just as expensive as an Alaskan itinerary, if not more so) I'd be on Royal's site right now looking to see if this exact itinerary was being offered in May 2020 and had any J1 Jr Suites left to hold the full family.

A few questions after reading the full blog:

  1. I noticed from your time lapse of both glaciers that Ovation only did a single turn and then left the glacier. I seem to recall on your other live blogs from smaller ships that the ship did multiple full turns / 360s so that everyone had lots of views and plenty of viewing time. Am I remembering right, and if so why would you guess Ovation didn't follow the same pattern?
  2. Also looked like the ship was "parked" much further from the glaciers than I recall your earlier sailings doing. Is that just memory playing tricks, maybe due to level of clean zoom you were able to get with photographs that made it look like you were closer? Or is Ovation just so much bigger that she simply can't get closer than a mile away without risking hitting the bottom of the channel or hitting some other obstruction? Or was this a function of the amount of ice (particularly the "growlers")?
  3. Definitely appreciated the perspective on your VOOM purchase. Given it's the exact same satellite internet that the smaller ships use, would you guess that it was so much worse on Ovation simply because she's carrying 2-3 times as many passengers as those smaller ships, and with the limited total available bandwidth of the satellite, that it boils down to comparative network congestion? Did you happen to do any really late-night testing or other A/B kind of test that could have locked down that possibility, where times with fewer passengers awake and using devices also showed some uptick in speeds?

Once again, an absolutely amazing blog! Between the photos, your insights and perspectives, and most of all willingness to share and take time from your vacation (or maybe more accurately your sleep!), this is one of the best I think I've seen from you.

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1 hour ago, JLMoran said:

I noticed from your time lapse of both glaciers that Ovation only did a single turn and then left the glacier. I seem to recall on your other live blogs from smaller ships that the ship did multiple full turns / 360s so that everyone had lots of views and plenty of viewing time. Am I remembering right, and if so why would you guess Ovation didn't follow the same pattern?

Each experience at a glacier has been slightly different on each cruise, even when visiting the same glacier.  Different Captains mastering different ships but also different weather and ice conditions at different times of the year plus different tidal times.  To be honest I'm not sure which of those factors came into play for this experience.   Perhaps being Ovation's first ever visit this Captain understandably played it safe, perhaps the tides weren't in our favor and higher tidal currents made it less safe or more difficult to navigate.

 

1 hour ago, JLMoran said:

Also looked like the ship was "parked" much further from the glaciers than I recall your earlier sailings doing. Is that just memory playing tricks, maybe due to level of clean zoom you were able to get with photographs that made it look like you were closer? Or is Ovation just so much bigger that she simply can't get closer than a mile away without risking hitting the bottom of the channel or hitting some other obstruction? Or was this a function of the amount of ice (particularly the "growlers")?

At Hubbard we did not get as close as Radiance last year.  At Dawes all ships turn in the same basin.  Radiance in 2018 was the last Alaska cruise of that season for her.  That Captain had a whole summer of experience there to understand how his ship behaved.  The tidal currents may have been in our favor last year on Explorer at Dawes.  Other factors I'm not aware of may be in play.  Depth is not an issue as these inlets are very deep.  The glaciers are very tall and most of that is underwater, we just see the few hundred feet above the waterline. 

At Dawes this year we had a strong sun rising in our face that presented a photography challenge so many of my pictures are washed out due to the angle of the sun.  An overcast or partial overcast day would have yielded better photos.  An afternoon arrival may have yielded better photos or maybe it would have been drizzle all afternoon.  That's Alaska.  Each experience is different, which is why I hope to go again, and again.   

If I sailed a similar Caribbean itinerary four times I'd grow tired of it.  In Alaska each visit is different.  

 

1 hour ago, JLMoran said:

Definitely appreciated the perspective on your VOOM purchase. Given it's the exact same satellite internet that the smaller ships use, would you guess that it was so much worse on Ovation simply because she's carrying 2-3 times as many passengers as those smaller ships, and with the limited total available bandwidth of the satellite, that it boils down to comparative network congestion? Did you happen to do any really late-night testing or other A/B kind of test that could have locked down that possibility, where times with fewer passengers awake and using devices also showed some uptick in speeds?

Several theories but in the end it comes down to the best technology available. 

The root cause is that Alaska and Northern Canada are both lightly populated so the satellite companies that provide communication services have a difficult business model operating there.  In the South a single satellite can reach millions of people and businesses to generate revenue.  In the North there are tens of thousands of people and a few hundred businesses.  As a result the communication providers don't offer the same options in the North that are available in the South.  If there were 100M people in the North we wouldn't have this issue.  Instead it's measured in the hundreds of thousands but spread across an area twice the size of the lower 48.

I do have some knowledge of the legacy geostationary satellite systems from a college internship a few decades ago.  A single transponder on a legacy satellite has a finite and fixed bandwidth.  An "earth station" (or ship) is constrained by what a legacy satellite can provide.  I suspect this is why all Quantum and Oasis class were deployed using the newer O3b satellite platform which unfortunately is not available in the North (root cause above).  The O3b platform has beam forming technology that can aggregate more bandwidth to a single earth station (or ship).  Older technology versus newer technology.

I do think the passenger count plays into this which is why these ships were deployed with O3b.  Royal used the best technology available on this cruise but that technology just isn't what it is when ships are in the South.     In Juneau I re-boarded mid-afternoon and it was an "okay" Voom experience.  By sail away Voom slowed to a crawl.  One sample is hardly a scientific representation to draw conclusions from but it could be that the old technology originally developed in the days of Vision and Radiance class simply can't handle the volume of guests on larger ships.  Up early for sunrise pictures resulted in no better performance so what does that say?  

Part of the problem are smart phones and cloud services.  Guest are taking hundreds of photos of the incredible scenery and experiences.  Those phones arrive back on the ship, connect to wifi and try to upload all that content to the cloud.  Across hundreds of devices its thousands of pictures.  Newer phones have higher megapixel camera ratings resulting in larger file sizes.  Five years ago camera phones produced smaller file sizes.  Repeat day after day and you have a saturated satellite uplink that still hasn't satisfied yesterday's demand to upload to the cloud before a new set of thousands of photos arrives back on board  to contribute to the congestion even while guests sleep through the night.  On an increasing basis more people use just a phone to capture pictures.  Five years ago there were more actual cameras on board.  It's going to get worse in the years to come.  Twenty megapixel smart phones (or more).  Better and multiple lens built into smart phones means even more phone users.  More desire to be "connected" as a society.  

Explorer last year didn't provide a great Voom experience either.  Ovation has a few hundred more guests.  Maybe if they blocked Google Photos and Apple iCloud it would be better but then people would complain about that. 

In the end it's a matter of having the right expectations.  To that end that is the goal is to make sure people understand Voom will be nothing like what it is when cruising in other regions.  You may experience this effect on your Iceland itinerary.  

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37 minutes ago, twangster said:

You may experience this effect on your Iceland itinerary.

If I were planning to purchase an internet package that would almost certainly be true. But the pricing for even single-device internet on that trip is exorbitant, at least so far; currently $20.50/day for a single-device plan ($287 for the trip). Depending on the port, that's an excursion for the family right there. Budget limits and expectations of lower-speed / lower-quality wifi means I'm not going to spend money that can be better spent elsewhere.

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Just now, JLMoran said:

If I were planning to purchase an internet package that would almost certainly be true. But the pricing for even single-device internet on that trip is exorbitant, at least so far; currently $20.50/day for a single-device plan ($287 for the trip). Depending on the port, that's an excursion for the family right there. Budget limits and expectations of lower-speed / lower-quality wifi means I'm not going to spend money that can be better spent elsewhere.

Good call.  The family memories you will make on an excursion will far exceed the value you get from being to connected to the internet.  

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22 hours ago, twangster said:

Some thoughts about Voom ship internet on this cruise.

I had pre-purchased a Voom Surf and Stream package at a sale price of $11.99 per day for a total price of $132.

Of my four cruises to Alaska on RCCL ships this was my worst ship internet experience.  

It started off great in Vancouver with the faster O3b service.  Shortly after going to sea it switched to the conventional geostationary satellite service which was expected this far North.  As we progressed it became very slow.  Like slower than the old dial-up service of the 90's at times.  It didn't really improve until we got closer to Seattle on the final sea days.

Texting usually worked but email was challenging and streaming impossible.

Hg1IbKp.jpg

Returning into O3b coverage areas they kept the ship on the old satellite system.  I suspect they don't want guests experiencing O3b for a day in Seattle and then facing the stark contrast of Alaska satellite internet. 

The Voom specialist offered a 20% discount.    

Satellite internet in Alaska has challenges that are well known but this was by far the worst ship internet I've ever experienced in Alaska.  

Most ports on Alaskan cruises have cellular service for major US cell providers so you need to carefully consider if you should purchase Voom when sailing to Alaska.

Thank you for the information, had no idea that internet was that bad. My carrier covers US/Canada for data so probably just use that in port. Lots to see and do besides staring at my electronics.

 

Did you notice how low the water level was as seen by the white marks from where the water level was previously? That's what it looked like back in the late 80's at Lake Mead, NV. now the water level is extremely low. Just wondering how low the water level will go in Alaska?

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Cruise Summary

Wow!  What an awesome Alaska experience.

There is a part of me that wants to say this was my best cruise to Alaska.  However looking back I thought the same thing on every Alaska cruise I've taken.  

There are a couple of ways to interpret that sentiment but the truth is that Alaska is such an amazing destination that each cruise can top the last one.  Every visit to Alaska is different. 

I chose to focus on Alaska on this cruise and in writing this trip report.  The ship itself is very similar to Anthem from a core ship experience.   Anyone who has sailed Anthem will feel right at home on Ovation.  Apologize for no menus and less about the on-board experience of Ovation, but I took this cruise for Alaska so that became the focus of this thread.

There were some special aspects of this cruise and it starts with the itinerary.  This itinerary may never be repeated.  That would be a shame because it included a lot I love about Alaska.

I was curious how an early season cruise would compare but now I'm sold on the idea that any time for an Alaska cruise season is the perfect time for an Alaska cruise.  

I was also curious how Ovation of the Seas would compare to Radiance and Voyager class or Celebrity's Millennium class for an Alaska cruise, the ships I've sailed before to Alaska.  Each has features I like.  Looking back over this experience there is a lot to like about Quantum class in Alaska.  

  • Great indoor pool space for families
  • Great indoor Solarium for adults, one of the best in the fleet
  • North Star (more on this below)  
  • Two70°
  • SeaPlex
  • Flowrider
  • New ship feel, new technology, new decor
  • Great Windjammer experience (I have always liked the WJ on Quantum class)
  • Great entertainment
  • Better suite amenities including Coastal Kitchen
  • Affordable balcony options for a reasonable fare difference

I was curious how viewing angles would work out for glacier visits.  I prefer to move around during glacier visits and seeing everything from multiple perspectives.  I was very pleased with how this worked out on Ovation, better than I thought it would.  I didn't think I'd like the glass dividers in places on the top decks but they were a blessing at times to block the wind with large spaces between them I could still take pictures.

Not everything was perfect.  These are areas that I felt had some room for improvement:

  • The crew pressure wash the outer decks from 5am to 7am.  During this time they are closed.  This is a required maintenance exercise but they could have adjusted times to recognize the long days of Alaska.  Sunrise is around 5am.  Runners want to run.  Arrival into ports is often occurring at this time.   I don't recall this being an issue on any ship I've sailed before including three cruises on sister ship Anthem.   Smokers were complaining there was no where to smoke.  I don't smoke but I know if you close all the outdoor smoking areas at the same time to wash them down guests are going to break the rules and some did.  
  • The Cruise Director lost an opportunity to hype certain events like sailing under the bridge in Vancouver or the fact that every port of call was an inaugural port of call.  The CD and staff seemed unaware that this was a special cruise itinerary or the ship's first ever visit to Alaska.
  • Voom internet was a disappointment but if you have read this thread I've covered this already.

North Star Experience.   North Star brings a new aspect to Alaska cruising allowing guests to see things from a very different angle.  This really sets Ovation apart from other ships that have sailed in Alaska.   Despite a single complimentary reservation for North Star I found great availability to enjoy it on standby basis.  Groups larger than 2 may find less enjoyment in the standby line unless they are willing to split up.  While the $49 charge during glacier visits was higher than I expected I understand why a charge is required.   Having done that extra cost version of the North Star Alaskan Experience I might even do it again. 

I've devised some ideas how to reduce glare from the curved windows in my North Star photos that I look forward to trying in North Star in other regions before I return to Alaska and enjoy North Star there again.  For me North Star really has value in Alaska where in other regions it's simply a cool activity to do.  You get a bird's eye view just like an Eagle soaring in the sky above the ship.

When I cruise Alaska my focus is Alaska and not ship entertainment or activities.  I have more cruises booked on Ovation in other regions some with many sea days.  This allowed me to skip entertainment or activities on this sailing knowing I can try them another time. 

I did not visit the MDR once.  For my needs and a desire for a quick meal experience the Windjammer fulfilled my needs perfectly.  Despite some cool meals I ate most of them on the aft outdoor seating area for the Windjammer.  Daily complimentary room service breakfast was appreciated with a balcony to enjoy a coffee while watching marine life below or an incredible sunrise unfold in front of me.

For Diamond Happy Hour the use of the entire Music Hall worked well but I still missed access to the Concierge Lounge, a stated benefit for Diamond Plus members.  I understand the reasoning offered for blocking access to the Concierge Lounge but it remains a disappointment.  

If you've enjoyed my pictures in this thread what you may not understand is that mere photos don't do it justice.  To experience Alaska you have to go to Alaska.   I know Royal offers great entertainment and activities but I feel like Alaska is a destination where you shouldn't try to do everything on the ship just because it's offered and available for you.  A number of times I found myself nearly alone enjoying incredible scenery, peace and tranquility.  Apologies to Nick Weir and his incredible team that produce awesome Royal entertainment but I came for Alaska.  

At times I put the camera down and just enjoyed the moment live and in person.  What you don't see in this thread are those moments.  Those are some of my best memories and for you to experience them you'll need to book a cruise to Alaska for yourself.

Thanks for following along and I thank you for viewing.  

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Thanks for the great pics and all the information.  It was fun to follow along while sailing with you, would have loved to say hi and even though it was never certain, we might have crossed paths at some point.  I was up early most mornings and probably walked past you one of those days or on the bridges wings.  My son has been following some of the threads and was also looking for you too, but a couple days in the club became more important!  

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Update:  My custom creation from the Skagway Glass Blowing Experience arrived in the mail today!

And to think... that's my hot air trapped inside the globe.  

vel2cJ6.jpg

My other purchases from their shop arrived yesterday but since many are gifts for family and friends no pics.

I opted for the flat base so I could put it on a table.  As dorky as this sounds, whenever I look at this I'll be brought right back to Skagway and this awesome Alaskan cruise experience on Ovation of the Seas.

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20 hours ago, 12thman said:

Did you notice how low the water level was as seen by the white marks from where the water level was previously? That's what it looked like back in the late 80's at Lake Mead, NV. now the water level is extremely low. Just wondering how low the water level will go in Alaska?

Water levels in Alaska are driven by Ocean levels.  Tides impact the inside passage as illustrated in Skagway at the end of Taiya Inlet.  As oceans rise so will water levels in Alaska.   

Levels in Lake Mead on the other hand are influenced by human demand pulling water out of the Colorado River.  As growing communities along that river pull more and more water, less makes it into Lake Mead.  We had a banner year of snowfall this year in Colorado.  99% of the state drought free.   Perhaps all that snowpack will help the water levels in Lake Mead, or perhaps more communities along the Colorado River will draw even more water from it.  

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Thank you for the wonderful blog.  Our entire family did a multi-generational cruise to Alaska in 2011.  It was a fabulous experience.  Our itinerary included Glacier Bay which was breathtaking.  The entire trip was like floating inside a post card.  My husband finally joked that he was getting tired of all of the beautiful scenery because he was always afraid he'd miss something.  Your blog brought back wonderful memories!!  

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On 5/28/2019 at 1:03 PM, 12thman said:

Did you notice how low the water level was as seen by the white marks from where the water level was previously? That's what it looked like back in the late 80's at Lake Mead, NV. now the water level is extremely low. Just wondering how low the water level will go in Alaska?

Two of our drivers mentioned that the tides are pretty extreme.  In Juneau our driver said this spring the difference from low tide to high tide is 26 feet over the course of the day. The other driver in Skagway mentioned the old Pier at Dyea was built over a mile log to accommodate the tides changes.  

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