The promise of Alaska draws thousands of visitors each year. The summer months, May, June and early July are peak time for unseasoned adventurers and want-to-be explorers. Later than this, while the sky is still red at 10pm and the locals no doubt revel in the luxury of a late afternoon sun, the ice is melting and the stark, pristine landscape start to shrink back, glistening like a forgotten ice-pop. In the winter, Alaska is shrouded in a northern cloak of darkness for all but a few hours of the day. Temperatures can drop to bitter extremes and the season is not-so-jolly for all but the hardiest of thoroughfarers.
We decided on late June as a departure date. Too soon to see the incredible wall of salmon swimming upstream to meet their fate, and the black, brown or grizzly bears that poise masterfully withjaw and sharpened claw waiting for them. But perfect for glacier viewing and whale watching.
A region situated west of the mainland, called the ‘Inside Passage’ or the Alaskan panhandle appealed to us most. It comprises of a body of water travelling as far north as Mount McKinley and is home to a million acres of fjord lands and 1000 feet deep glaciers. Blanketed on each shore are forests, hemlock and spruce.
Travelling through the Inside Passage itself was the obvious option, and so we booked a seven-night cruise with Royal Caribbean on their liner, Vision of the Seas. This is not an inexpensive option (about US$1000 per person for the week) but it is a practical one to move through the area in such a limited time. Vision of the Seas is a huge vessel, about 78,491 tonnes, 915 meters in length, a capacity for 2,435 guests and a cruising speed of 22 knots.
All meals are included on the cruise and are of a good standard. There are usually three dining options, the first being the formal ‘Aquarius Room’ that offered an international á la carte menu served by a gregarious, warm bunch of international staff. According to your preferences on dining time, you are pre-allocated a table number where you are invited to dine for the week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you get an interesting array of people at your table this can be a good social excursion. Unfortunately the opposite can, and did, happen, and we found ourselves struggling through stilted black-tie conversations with the equivalent of an introverted parliament of owls.
The second (preferred) dining option was the Windjammer Café on deck nine - a relaxed, informal setting where we sat at a table for two, overlooking glacial scenery and ate from a diverse, imaginative buffet. There is table service for drinks and meals are served until late. Finally, for those not in the mood to schmooze, cabin service is available for any meal.
The range of activities on board is impressive, but probably best suited to the socially bold on many counts (karaoke, bingo, blind date, and comedy). However, there were several great presentations offered in the lecture theatre by marine biologists and naturalists with information on the myriad wildlife in the region and the ecological and geographical idiosyncrasies of Alaska. The cruise ship is not somewhere you could reliably complain about comfort or conditions (unless of course you are sea sick, and even then the crew are there to ease any distress). Every whim is catered to. For us though, the luxury of an Alaskan cruise was really the breath-taking depth of the scenery and the freedom to explore ports that would otherwise be hard to access.
After leaving Vancouver on a Sunday at 5pm, we arrived at Hubbard glacier on Tuesday afternoon. As the Vision of the Seas slowed her pace and carved through the achingly cold waters, passengers clambered to the railings, hats on heads, hot chocolate in hands and cameras at the ready. The spectacle was magnificent. Glacial flour dusted the otherwise gray water, giving the illusion of a turquoise depth, and chunky columns of ice drifted by in freezing shades of blue. A seal pup and his mother languished unperturbed on an icy outcrop.
The mountains surrounding the glacier were weathered, carved and scooped out by valleys of thunderous ice. Hubbard glacier itself spilled into the sea in a bizarre freeze-frame, a crumpled wave of water for which time stood still. I was surprised by the blueness of this receding giant, a matt, opaque pale blue. We gazed in awe as the heavy gray skied lowered and hovered between the mountains, and despite the end of the day officially being around 10.45pm, the black shadows cast by the sky on the water made for a moody panorama.
Day four saw us arrive at our first port, Skagway. When gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon Territory (just across the border from Alaska), the gold rush of 1898 resulted. As thousands of gold-crazed adventurers sought their best jumping off spot for their arduous task of crossing the territory, they found the deepest penetration by boat was at the northern tip of the Lynn canal, and that is how Skagway was born. Some colorful characters, such as Soapy Smith, Skookum Jim, Klondike Kate, Oregan Mare, Pea Hull Annie and Diamond Lil furnished the town.
The Red dog Saloon on the main drag offers a glimpse of the harsh, fast life the men and women of the town had yore, when gold was at the essence of every American dream. The town itself is pretty much a single strip, with old weather-board facades to shops and cafes. Several indications of the towns indigenous roots can be found off the main street including totem poles and carvings. Historic old yellow cabs are available for local tours with resident narrators.
Disappointed to see a ‘starbucks’ but not able to resist once we smelt the brews, we sipped lattes and people-watched. We had decided to take the risk and not book an on-shore excursion for Skagway, preferring instead to see what the town held in store.
That turned out well as there were tour touts at several locations on the main street, tucked away in little alcoves. An old law forbids anyone from soliciting business on the sidewalk….. but 6 inches away is fine.
The cost of the excursions on offer were half the price (or less) of the Royal Caribbean tours. For something local, such as the Yukon gold rush tour that we did, there is no reason to pay cruise prices as there are plenty of opportunities to book a tour when you arrive at Skagway. More specific, exclusive tours (such as dog sledding or helicopter flights) may however be a different story.
We booked a two hour coach trip into the Yukon territory. Our guide was local and well informed. The trip however, was a bit lack-lustre, and while the scenery was interesting, it did not compare to the rest of Alaska. Hence more impressive than the trip was the fantastic waterfall we found close to the gold-diggers graveyard on the far side of town. You need to walk for a little way off the graveyard track (maybe 10 minutes) but the prize at the end is easily worth the extra burn.
Back on board by 8pm, we set sail for Juneau, Alaska’s capital and biggest port. Not that big means ‘big’ - about 31,000 people in peak season. Juneau was founded in the gold rush of 1880, and is nestled at the foot of Mount Juneau in the Alaskan panhandle. It faces the water from the mainland side of the Gastineau channel and has a tapestry of architecture including the Russian influenced buildings more common to Sitka, and again the weather-board turn of the century facades seen in Skagway.
The town is interesting, offering some incredible examples of native Tlingit Indian and Eskimo art in the galleries. Souvenir shops host many duty-free gemstones and jewels, a favourite amongst tourists and there are also numerous local bars scattered around town.
Heading to the outskirts of Juneau, we walked up unbelievably steep hills, winding through quaint residential areas to the crest of a hill offering a visual sweep of the town. In parts, steps are built into the sidewalk as in San Francisco because of the angle of the climb. We continued on, passing beautiful, simple homes with window boxes full of orange-red poppies and pansies, and overgrown gardens rambling down to the stream. A husky dog half-heartedly raised one ear as we ambled past his castle. The sun was out although the weather still crisp and fresh.
We followed the river track for some way, maybe 2-3 miles, passing secluded picnic spots and beckoning forest pathways. At several points we were fortunate enough to see bald eagles majestically gliding overhead, surveying the landscape and elegantly spying on their prey. We went as far as the old mine and turned around to meander back into town. A local told us that black bears have been known to meander into town also, usually around dusk, to see what’s on offer. It’s not hard to believe in the stillness of a Juneau evening.
Later that afternoon we had booked a ‘flightseeing’ trip over Mendenhall glacier (via the cruise excursions desk; US$165 pp). We arrived at the marina to see a flock of blue and white seaplanes and the friendly face of Sarah, our pilot. Along with another couple, we climbed into the designated plane and began our ascent out of Juneau harbor. The views were spectacular. Tightly packed forests gave way to vast clearings and then continued on to balance precariously on the shore, greeting the jade green water. Graphite black islands lay strewn across the inlets. We chugged through and above the snowy peaks, sometimes temporarily engulfed by cloud, to find the next view. The color of the waters amazed me - from muddy beige to Chinese green to deepest black.
Mendenhall glacier itself was quite stunning. A thundering, mighty wash of ice which had carved and slivered its way through the landscape, and drawn to a halt at theng of the channel. The glacier is 1.5 miles wide and hundreds of feet thick, fed by a 1,500 square ice field outside of Juneau. It seemed unreasonable, impossible, that it just lay there, frozen but for the chinks of turquoise blue water on it’s scarred surface, yet the water in front of it rippled freely, fluid, living. From the air we were offered an extraordinary view of the patchwork of the glacial region. In particular, the hundreds of rivulets which wove themselves across the land, like a giant cobweb. In all the fligtseeing trip lasted about 50 minutes providing an astonishing aerial display.
Our final port of call on Friday, day 6, was Ketchikan, as far north as we were venturing. Ketchikan is a old-fashioned town, much of which has been maintained in, or restored to it’s original form. Of the three ports, this was the best example of the architecture and style of the gold rush era, with historic ‘Creek Street’ even providing ‘ladies of the night’ in full costume to relive the stories of the time. You can also get great fish and chips at the café at the far end of Creek Street, overlooking the creek itself.
We picked up a couple of walking trail maps from the tourist information center located right on the dock and began our days exploration. We were surprised and delighted to find lush, dense rainforest walks only a mile or so (uphill) out of town. The entrance to our chosen walk was not so well sign-posted and walking uphill on the roadside, we were beginning to think we had missed it. However, past a trailer park and a couple of scraggy dogs, we found it. Once we were on it the paths were well structured and the route easy to follow. The air was abound with the smell of redwood, thick ferns and freshness.
We walked for about two hours, continually uphill towards the first peak (we found out later that the second peak was blocked off due to snow and bad conditions). The walk was strenuous in parts, but mostly just peaceful. We spotted a deer delicately picking his way through a pile of fallen leaves, but he did not hang around. We didn't see any bears, but no doubt they saw us. From the peak (2000 feet) we were rewarded with views over the port, and a coastline stretching endlessly out infront of us between jutting hills and mountains.
Back on board that night, feeling pleasantly exhausted, we stood on deck watching the rhythm of the water passing us by and willing a humpback whale to surface and be admired. Wearing just about all of my clothes, I stood on the deck for about an hour. The glass of Australian Coldstream Hills shiraz I was drinking made the chill bearable…. Then to my astonishment, there he was! Maybe 70 meters from the ship on the starboard side where I stood, fixated, the grand, effortless creature rose to the surface, his exhalation spraying up as he arched slightly and sunk once again under the protection of the water. I watched him accomplish this graceful exercise for several minutes, fascinated by the sheer hulk of his body (and I could only see the top of him), before he descended, curtain falling, to my applause. I was very privileged to have seen him this way, unexpectedly.
Our final day at sea, Saturday. We cruised to ‘Misty Fjords’, a Fjord land so named because of the low-hanging cloud that so often rests in the passage. The weather was a little dull and gray, which did not’t help the ambience of what I imagine would otherwise be a very atmospheric place. We also arrived on a clear, not cloudy, day, so we got fjords but no mist. The benefit of this however was that we saw the craggy granite cliffs quite clearly and the scars they bore from years of ravaging cruel winter weather. At places, there were lime green grass clearings at the foot of the cliffs and running out to the water. On one of these a brown bear lethargically fossicked for something interesting to eat, but he was too far away to see in detail with the naked eye. Many passengers valiantly squinted, looked through their 300m zoom lenses or stole their neighbor’s binoculars for a closer look.
So to our last night; a delicious roast dinner and a final summer sunset leaning over the ships railings. It was the most inspiring scarlet and amber sunset pushing the gray of the day into a distant memory. Shards of the dying orange sunlight clung to a henna sky, framed in turn by the curves of black shadowy hills as we sailed by. A fitting end to a fascinating voyage.
Photos courtesy of P. Grange, freelance journalist & photojournalist