Touring Alaska by Wheelchair
by Eddie Rice © 2000
 

Eddie and Harriet Rice on Holland America CruiseThis September, Eddie and Harriet Rice took a seven-day cruise from Anchorage (Seward), Alaska to Vancouver, B.C. on the Holland America – Statendam. Eddie, who uses a power scooter due to Post-Polio Syndrome, reports on the access to Anchorage hotel and tour accommodations, as well as the ship’s facilities.

Harriet and I flew Northwest Airlines to Anchorage. We used our "air miles," and as a result we had to change planes three times, but it went like clock work. I designed a large sign (protected with a plastic sleeve) telling the ground crew that the wheelchair had to be returned to the cabin upon landing.

We decided to go two days before the ship departed to see Anchorage and the surrounding area. We stayed in the Hanpton Inn. We always try to stay with this chain because there are no surprises and the staff there is exceptional. They helped me in and out of the van (which was not accessible) and did a great job.

When we travel, I use a manual chair, so I searched the Internet for bus tours of Anchorage with wheelchair accessibility. After contacting a few companies, disappointment started to set in as response after response came back negative. Then, one day I received an e-mail from one of the companies that did not a wheelchair tour bus, but knew of a firm that did. They gave me the number because it is a small operation that is not on the ‘net’.

Alaska Snail Trails bus with owner, Jim StoneI contacted Mr. Jim Stone, owner/operator of Alaska Snail Trails. He told me that he has a new wheelchair tour bus that holds six people and 2-3 wheelchairs. The tour, ($76 each.) description was what we were looking for, so we made reservations way in advance, to avoid disappointment. It was a full (and turned out to be a very sunny) day, from 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

Mr. Stone, or Jim as we soon knew him, was the best tour guide we had throughout our vacation. I must mention that we did take accessible tours in our other ports of calls, Juneau and Ketchikan, but Jim was outstanding.

Besides being extremely knowledgeable, of all the sights we went to, he personally had inspected each stop, in advance, to ensure that access would be available. He knew which staff members to contact, at each location, so that we did not have to wait to enter. Our tour began in the city of Anchorage itself. We were impressed with the modern buildings and all the facilities that were available. Jim told us that half the city is relatively new because of the earthquake that the city had in the late 60s. He then drove us out of the city to Portage Glacier. On the way he pointed out the areas were wildlife may be spotted and we did see some Dall sheep, way up high on the side of the mountain. How those sheep don’t slip and fall is amazing to see.

Arriving at Potage Glacier, we boarded a sightseeing boat, which had a very smooth ramp so getting on and off was a breeze. A park ranger explained how a glacier is formed and we were able to get very close and got some great pictures. And as an extra bit of excitement we witnessed a huge ice burg “flip.” You should have heard the thunderous noise that it made.

Then we were off to the Alyeska Ski Resort for lunch. There we took an accessible cable car to the top of one of the surrounding mountains, took in the fabulous view and enjoyed lunch. From there we visited a small group of cabins that sold souvenirs. Since I collect small sculptures of dogs, there was one I just had to have. It was of an Indian boy with his husky. Then we drove through the mountains, all the while Jim was telling us about the area, people and changes in the glaciers that he has seen, since living in Anchorage.

He then took as to another lookout vantage point to get a close up view of one of the older glaciers in the area. Then on to a stream where there was an accessible bridge, This bridge, extended over a stream with the clearest water you ever saw. The Salmon were swimming up stream and you could grab one, if you were so inclined. What a sight to see all the different kinds, red ones, gray ones and so on. Jim informed us how the salmon know which stream to swim back to for spawning and ending their life cycle. It’s by smell. When the salmon are born, each stream has it’s own distinct smell which the fish use as a means of finding their way back to where they were born.

Towards the end of the tour, Jim had brochures on different restaurants for those who wanted to go out to eat. Each one was, again, personally inspected for access and quality. If you wanted to go to one, instead of taking you back to you hotel, he gave you the option of being taken by him, so you didn’t have to make additional arrangements.

All during the tour, Jim’s narration was informative, enjoyable and just the right amount. He made sure at each stop that I was accommodated to be able to participate in each venue. His attention to detail was most impressive. Most of all he was a delight to have as a tour guide. After taking many tours, over the year’s my wife, Harriet and I, know that the tour guide can make or break the enjoyment factor of your vacation.

Alaska Snail Trail Tours also offers tour of our cities in Alaska.

To contact Jim Stone :

Alaska Snail Trails
James G. Stone
P.O. Box 210894
Anchorage, Alaska
U.S.A. 99521
Phone: 907-337-7517
800-948-4532

Holland America – Statendam Cruise

Fortunately, we booked our cruise early and reserved the larger sized accessible cabins. The bathroom was great and the drains in the shower caught all the water, so none leaked into the room. All the wall light switches could also be controlled from the headboard of the bed.

Wheelchair accessible bathroom on the Statendam CruiseWe, and a few other wheelchair users, had  a problem disembarking and embarking at Juneau because the gangway had stairs. Although the stairs were small, they still were a major safety obstacle requiring much assistance. There was an electric stair-climbing wheelchair aboard the ship; however, someone neglected to charge up the battery, rendering the device useless. Besides, the last two stairs on the gangway were so high that I seriously doubt the device could safely negotiate from top to bottom and back.

As a result, good old-fashioned man-power was put into play. I, as well as all the other persons in wheelchairs, was  carried up and down (see photo, I took of another passenger) by four crewmembers. They did an admirable job under the circumstances. Upon returning to the ship, almost half way up, one of the crew (on the front left) lost his grip and I was dropped. Fortunately, not very far and with no ill effects. This could have been a much worse scenario.

I wrote the CEO of the cruise company describing the above situation and the loss of the individuals dignity and made the following suggestions.

Check to assure that the batteries of the stair climbing wheelchair are charged up at least 24 hours before anticipated use and ascertain that it functions.

Check that the gangway can accommodate this type of device.

Third, Have an alternative system available for the disabled.

At Juneau. I noticed that on the pier, there was a large fork lift with a three-sided container attached, which if feasible, safety-wise, could be used as an elevator. Or some similar devise could be more quickly and easily used, with dignity. My wife and I realize that we’re all just human and things happen. Again the crew was superb and we realize there are limitations.  Hopefully this situation can be improved upon to make future disabled passenger’s cruise as trouble free as possible.            




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