Cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage

In 1879 John Muir travelled by steamship from California to Alaska, seeking firsthand experience with glaciers. Just a year or so behind the discovery of gold in the Klondike, and a year before the founding of Juneau, he would spend two seasons canoeing and hiking and cataloging the life of ice.

Our journey to Alaska began in Vancouver, BC. Stephanie’s parents had driven from South Carolina over the preceding weeks, and met us at the airport. Our room for the night in Vancouver was a short walk from Stanley Park, and rather than an afternoon nap I opted for a pre-cruise run along the marina and through the park, providing a welcome first whiff of that tidal salty kelpy evergreen smell that the Pacific Northwest ocean offers. Copious sushi for dinner brought everyone into a related seafood frame of mind.

In the morning we headed to the docks to board our boat, the Celebrity Century. My first cruise ship, larger than I was expecting but not overwhelming. Early arrivals, we had no wait and were soon aboard. The turnaround time for the boat is impressive, especially as would become clear upon our return in a week, as the boat had only arrived and disembarked its previous passengers 3 hours earlier.

Looking out to Vancouver

We set sail in the afternoon, and settled into our room on the 9th floor we watched the port recede and sped towards the channel between the mainland and Vancouver Island. Back in the land of mountains, it is still surprising to see how tall the island is – comparable mountain ranges on both sides of the ship.

Watching the mountains go by
Our only sunset

By morning we would be in fairly open ocean headed for the Inside Passage, the bulk of our cruise and the extent of Muir’s exploration. Whereas he would start at Fort Wrangell and recruit a Tlingit canoe and crew, along with a missionary co-adventurer, eventually making his way to Hoonah across from the entrance to Glacier Bay and then explore within Glacier Bay, we would head our 1600-person ship first for Hoonah.

Anchored at Hoonah, AK

Now a recently added destination for cruiseships due to the construction of “Icy Strait Point”, with the “world’s largest” zipline and a museum/shopping complex, this would be our only stop where we could not dock but instead anchored and rode the “tender” liferafts to shore. The town of Hoonah, a mile walk from the dock, is a tiny fishing village – most of the locals we saw on our walk were preparing/repairing the hulls of their trawlers in the boatyard. An elephant seal appeared for a moment, and it began to rain steadily as we returned to the ship.

Walking to Hoonah
Sun over Icy Strait Point

Our time on the ship settled into a relaxing pattern of leisurely mornings, lunch at the buffet, card games and drinks in the forward windowed lounge, reading and a rolling-of-the-ship-and-cocktail-induced afternoon nap, and dinner in the dining room. No thought of swimming or playing basketball as the days grew steadily windier, just relaxation between excitement at each port of call.

Lounging

The next morning found us turning into Yakutat Bay, headed towards Hubbard Glacier. The air immediately turned colder though we had two hours till we reached the glacier. Old glacial valleys interrupt the steep cliffs of the bay’s own old glacial form, and birds are everywhere along the shoreline, dots moving against the dark cascade-covered walls. The last mile was an ice field of tiny bergs that we picked our way slowly through, but already the glacier filled the horizon, a band of blue and gray under the low clouds. We navigated to within half a mile of the glacier and the captain slowly spun the boat in place as we watched for calving bergs from our balcony.

Making our way to Hubbard
Former glacier
Hubbard Glacier
At Hubbard Glacier

Returning ocean-side, we made our way overnight back into the passage and awoke to find ourselves nearly to Juneau. Our schedule here involved an early morning hike up to above Mendenhall Glacier, from just below the glacial runoff lake. (Another blogger who lives in Juneau recently posted lovely pictures of kayaking the lake.) Only 3 others from our boat joined us on this excursion: a mother and daughter from Toronto and an older gentleman from Dublin, who had never smelled a skunk nor skunk cabbage but was not afraid to investigate the latter. After climbing through the wet forest, our hike turned vertical and we scrambled up a series of rock pathways to higher views of the glacier before returning for lunch in town.

In the forest
Steep hike to Mendenhall
Above Mendenhall Glacier

When Muir returned to Alaska ten years later, steam cruise ships were already commonplace and the tell-tale signs of the industry have not changed much.

We arrived at Wrangell in the rain at 10:30 PM. There was a grand rush on shore to buy curiosities and see totem poles. The shops were jammed and mobbed, high prices paid for shabby stuff manufactured expressly for tourist trade. Silver bracelets hammered out of dollars and half dollars by Indian smiths are the most popular articles, then baskets, yellow cedar toy canoes, paddles, etc. Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook-maker, however ignorant.

Other ships waited to take our spot or to follow on with us towards Ketchikan as we left Juneau. The day’s journey would give us the best views of the narrow steep channels of the Inside Passage, ending in the Tongass Narrows for a rainy day in Ketchikan. Stephanie and I had another all-day excursion here, a bus ride to the northern end of the peninsula and a choppy ride across to the sheltered side of the Tatoosh Islands for a few hours of sea kayaking.

Along the way we encountered a Humpback Whale circling one of the islands and seals watching from the rocks, and while kayaking encountered Lion’s Mane jellyfish, mink, and the island walls revealed countless orange and purple starfish from the receding tide. (By this point in the trip, the numerous bald eagles barely registered.) The rain came and went, but we were suited up and dry in our double kayak. The paddling was as a loose group, and those of us more capable in the water followed a guide towards more open water, only to learn that true sea kayaking would have to wait as the swells started to match our own height and required tacking with the waves to remain steady and return to the sheltered coves and passages.

Sea kayaking
Damp from kayaking

Exhausted, we made it back to the ship in time to sail back towards Vancouver in the rain and rolling seas. A wonderful week spent with family and taking in the wilderness of Alaska admist the comfort of a cruise, I would love to do it all again.