Accessing Alaska


When I decided to take a vacation this year I had no idea where I wanted to go. I don’t like beaches so the islands were out. I haven’t updated my passport in a number of years, so international travel would be difficult to fit into my schedule. Finally I decided on one of two possibilities, either a week in Quebec City, the idea of exploring such an old city fascinated me, or a cruise. Try as I might I could find scant little information about Quebec City. I had heard that most of the streets are cobblestone so it might be difficult for my wheelchair to navigate. I had heard that some of the hotels are “wheelchair accessible”, though it’s always difficult to know how people define that term. And, I had not been able to find out whether any of the major tourist attractions were accessible. No one seemed to know these details. So, I opted for a cruise. It occurred to me that this would be a ‘canned” vacation. Everything I would want to do would be in easy reach on a ship. There would be daytime activities and a nightlife. A cruise was the perfect answer to my problems! The question of where to cruise to was quickly resolved. People always talk about their friend who went on a cruise to Alaska and had a fantastic time. In fact, my parents have a friend who recently came back from just such a trip. I talked to my travel agent and looked at the pictures my parents’ friend showed me. Finally I made my plans. I would cruise to from Vancouver, BC to Anchorage, Alaska aboard the Ocean Princess, a ship that had been launched by the Princess Cruise Line just this past February. Though there were other ships cruising to Alaska during the timeframe I was interested in I reasoned that, because it was so new, the Ocean would probably have all the accessibility bugs worked out. For the most part I was correct in my reasoning.

The Ship

I flew to Vancouver, B.C to pick up the Princess Ocean. When the cab stopped at the dock I sat there in awe. Seventy-seven thousand tons. Fourteen decks. Eight hundred and fifty-six feet long. This ship was HUGE! I was told that this particular floating hotel had been designed with disabled passengers in mind. I was about to find out for myself.

My stateroom, one of 19 accessible staterooms on the ship, was not the tiny cabin that most people who cruise often talk about. It seemed to me to be the size of a standard hotel room, with all the amenities and very little of the annoying clutter that normally gets in my way. There was a single, queen-size bed instead of the twin beds most hotels put in accessible rooms. The bathroom, which is almost always a problem when traveling, was great. A tiny yet steep ramp, no more than two inches long, preceded the door. The vanity had enough clearance for my legs to fit under it. The roll-in shower was perfectly suited for me. There was one problem though. The peephole on the door was too high. This kind of tiny over-sight was repeated many times through the ship. Princess obviously went out of its way to make this ship wheelchair friendly. The accessibility problems that existed on the Ocean were small, but they were glaring. The doors onto the deck were spring-loaded and very heavy. It was difficult to roll myself up the short, steep ramps while trying to push them open. Around each deck was a rail for passengers to lean on and look over. But this rail is just at my eye level, making viewing the landscape and taking pictures somewhat of a challenge. I was constantly forced to find places where the rail was out of the way. I’m sure that a taller person wouldn’t have had this problem even from a seated position. In the casino all the gaming tables were standard height. None were geared toward wheelchair users. The Disco was set up very well, except that the dance floor had a single step leading up to it. There was no reason for the step that I could see. Whenever I ran into one of these small problems on this otherwise accessible ship I had to ask myself ‘Why?’

The Ports

Ketchikan
Before taking the cruise I was sent a brochure listing each of the ports and the possible land excursions associated with them. The brochure clearly marked which excursions Princess thought were suitable for people with disabilities. Using the brochure as a guide I arranged for land excursions that would show me the highlights of the ports in what I thought was the easiest possible manner. After a day of sailing we arrived at our first port of call, Ketchikan, a town on three granite-based islands that are only accessible by seaplane or boat. The night before we docked I was called by the excursion office and told that the tour bus was not equipped with a wheelchair lift. If I wanted to go on the tour I had signed up for I would be transported alone, in a lift-equipped minivan, while the rest of the group traveled ahead of me. This was unacceptable and I said so. Part of the reason for going on such a tour is to be able to talk to other participants about the experience. If I was by myself I wouldn’t be able to do that. I told the person I was talking to that I would be able to get myself up the three steps of the bus and that they would just have to carry my chair in the van. This seemed reasonable since the bus would only be making two stops anyway. After much argument over safety protocols I managed to convince the tour office operator to agree to my plan.

Juneau
Juneau was probably my favorite port. This is where the glaciers met. This is where the mountains were the highest and most beautiful. Since we would be docked here for almost an entire day I had arranged two land excursions: a tour of the highlights of the town and a helicopter ride that would land on the glaciers. I had not been called the night before we docked so I did not anticipate any problems with my excursions and, for the most part, I didn’t encounter any problems.

The ship docked during low tide so we had to disembark from the seventh floor of the ship instead of the fifth floor. This presented a problem. There was no ramp that could reach that level. I was taken off the ship using a stairclimber that carried a wheelchair I transferred onto (my chair was too wide for the device). That slight inconvenience accomplished I arrived at my bus, which was fully accessible and equipped with both a lift and tie-downs for a wheelchair. The tour guide was very kind and accommodating to my needs. We made three stops: Gastenau Salmon Hatchery, Green Angel Gardens, and the Mendenhall Glacier. Only two of the stops presented any problems for a person with a disability. The hatchery was very interesting and very accessible, having ramps all around for wheelchair users to access the entire facility. There was some trouble, however, when I tried to see into a few of the holding pens. The walls of the pens were quite high, obviously to prevent the salmon from jumping out. A taller individual might not have had this problem but I did. By the time we arrived at the Gardens the weather was turning bad and a light rain began to fall. Aside from the inherent difficulties of carrying an umbrella while trying to navigate a wheelchair, there was also a problem with the path along which we traveled while examining the various flora. The owner had put down shale chips in an effort to make the path more appealing and less muddy during periods of rain (Juneau gets 200 days of rain a year). The shale chips were difficult to negotiate over, especially when the path became hilly. Of the three stops we made Mendenhall Glacier was the best. The visitor’s center presented no problems at all. It was set up very well for people of every capability. I did, however, venture into no-man’s land for a wheelchair user. At the glacier itself there were many paved paths. There was also a very steep and muddy path going down toward a stream where icebergs floated. I wanted to get a picture of those icebergs so of course I had to get close. I pushed my way down the hill, despite several people warning me off, and took my pictures. Going down the hill was no problem but getting back up took al my strength. I wouldn’t recommend going down that hill unless you’re very strong.

The helicopter ride that I took later that day presented some interesting challenges. The guidebook had said this was an accessible excursion but failed to mention that the experience would be somewhat limited for wheelchair users. I was loaded onto the helicopter using a kind of chair lift that I had not seen before. The chair rose from one level to another on an angled conveyor belt. Once arriving at the level of the helicopter seat I was strapped in there and watched as my wheelchair was taken away to wait in the office for my return. This was a disappointment. I had expected to be able, like everyone else, to venture out onto the glacier once we landed. Unfortunately the helicopter was not large enough to carry passengers and my wheelchair. Despite not being able to ‘walk’ on the ancient ice of the glacier the helicopter ride should not be missed by wheelchair users. It is a wonder to behold!

Skagway
Some may say that Skagway is a tourist trap, and to the casual observer it does seem that way. But, despite its row after row of stores geared toward the tourist, Skagway is beautiful! It’s a tiny town of 600 full-time residents completely surrounded by mountains. For my land excursion I arranged to take part in a railroad tour of the scenery around the town and up into the mountains. It was truly gorgeous! From breath-taking foliage to snow-capped mountains to magnificent waterfalls flowing from the glaciers, everywhere there was something spectacular to see. The train was fully accessible and equipped with both a wheelchair lift and an accessible restroom, though only on one of its cars. The train moved slowly up a mountain pass toward the Yukon. I had expected some degree of trouble trying to keep my chair steady while the train moved but experienced no such problem. There were two problems I did experience though. The aisle between the seats was too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through so having conversations with those at the back of the car was not possible. Furthermore, there was a ledge just outside the car that was perfect for picture-taking but it was made inaccessible by both a narrow doorway and a step leading down to it. Despite these two minor inconveniences the train ride was glorious. The train did shimmy quite a bit, especially when traveling over a hundred year old trestle, but it was far from uncomfortable. In fact, riding this train over the trail the gold miners took in 1896 made me feel as if I was a part of that history.

Conclusion

Princess makes a mistake when it decides which of their excursions are accessible to people with disabilities. They do not take into account the individual and his or her particular abilities. For example, for someone with my agility and strength getting on and off a bus without a lift was fairly easy. If you’re planning on taking a cruise on Princess or any of the other cruise lines I would recommend calling ahead and getting as many details as possible about the land excursions. If something sounds appealing but isn’t specifically marked as accessible I would ask for more details. More often than not the cruise line errs on the side of caution. When planning a cruise it is very important to make your abilities known.



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