Passage to Alaska
A luxury small-boat cruise from Seattle to Juneau balances adventure with home comforts and gourmet food
A light mist dresses the Olympic Mountains in the 6am light, and out on the top deck, I inhale the scent of fresh pine. Cut logs are piled on nearby ships, and the air feels soft; washed clean. Sheila, the in-house wellness guru, is leading the yoga class, though it’s for just me and our group’s other on-board specialist, marine ecologist Dr Caroline Fox from Vancouver, Canada. “When they arrive on the boat, most people spend the first few days still travelling, moving in their minds,” Sheila says. “They just need to stop.”
It’s the first morning of our two-week, small-ship adventure cruise from Seattle all the way up the Pacific coast to Juneau, 1,500 kilometres away. Though Juneau is Alaska’s capital, this long, thin strip of coastline is a part of the state many visitors forget about. Jonathan Raban’s compelling but gloomy novel Passage to Juneau, about this exact same route, accompanies me on my cabin table.
Sheila is correct, because the sooner we “stop”, the faster we can start absorbing what’s in front of us. Fortunately, with a cosy library, daily yoga, a brilliant chef, a large hot tub and massages on demand, this shouldn’t be too difficult. There are only 18 cabins on the 44-metre-long boat.
The previous day, I had flown all the way from Dubai to Seattle, marvelling at both the romance and convenience of being picked up at the airport and taken, via the downtown area, to the dock at the low-key Fishermen’s Terminal for a 5pm departure. We don’t have to endure the stress and noise of a huge cruise ship set-up: our Safari Explorer is only two decks high and our group numbers only 12. There are more staff than guests.
Caroline only just made it to the boat herself, after being caught in weekend traffic at the US border, yet both of us managed to steal a march on the day, and after the leisurely yoga session, we headed to breakfast feeling energised. Having been awake for the better part of the previous two days, I had sunk easily into sleep after our first decadent dinner the night before – blackened coho salmon and lime beurre blanc. Overnight, we had coasted along the southern end of Puget Sound to the hulking Olympic Peninsula. It was a calm, smooth start.
An equally excellent breakfast of corn cakes with avocado and creme fraiche, and several other dishes, prepares us for the day ahead and gives ample opportunity to meet the other guests, some of whom are chatting about Prince Harry’s wedding, which is happening as we speak. Most are retired Americans, such as Lynne and Pat, from California, and Steve and Adrienne, ex-San Diego prosecutors who live in Portland, Oregon. It’s a well-travelled group, and the table conversation bounces between the mundane and random questions such as: “Have you been to Rwanda?”
Our seasoned guide, Jeremy, who will be leading our activity programme from start to finish, supervises a seamless transfer deep into Olympic National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site thanks to its giant old-growth trees, lakes and mountain ranges. As we hike through the dense temperate rainforest, Jeremy gives us an educated narrative, including fascinating new research about how underground fungus and tree-root systems communicate. “It’s nature’s internet”, he says. Appropriate, for the home of Amazon.com.
Back at the dock at Port Angeles, I see an assortment of other boats and ships with names such as Pacific Queen, Cable Connector and Last Chance. We set sail for the San Juan Islands, still in Washington State, but very close to the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Despite their proximity to Vancouver and Victoria, and American city Bellingham, the islands are idyllic and undeveloped; some are, naturally, owned by Seattle tech magnates.
With a striking view of the Mount Baker stratovolcano in the Cascades mountain range 70km away, we drop anchor in Echo Bay in Sucia Island State Park. The horseshoe-shaped main island, surrounded by picturesque rocks and smaller outcrops, gave pause to the Spanish explorers who arrived in 1791. They called it “sucia”, or “foul,” because of its challenge to navigation. With our ship’s high-tech systems scoping our surrounds and Rod, our burly captain in charge on the bridge, such dangers have been almost done away with, and the island and its waters are calm and pristine-looking.
After a dinner of tomato gazpacho and miso and balsamic-rubbed flat-iron steak, we’re taken to land on the island in a skiff and treated to a bonfire, hot drinks and smores as the sun sets.
The next morning, we take a two-hour hike amid pine, madrone, doug fir and spruce trees, spotting river otters and bald eagles; after lunch, it’s kayaking under huge blue skies, seeing a handful of well-dressed families with their own small sailing boats. The mild air and all-American scene seems like an ominous hint of the wilderness to come.
We head north up the Georgia Strait, with the coast of British Columbia on our right. Known as the Inside Passage because of the chain of islands providing shelter from the open sea, this is a route first used by native Americans travelling by canoe – though some believe that they themselves arrived from islands as far away as Polynesia, sailing on powerful Pacific currents. Because of its popularity as a cruise-ship route, I had been worried about it being busy and polluted; on the contrary, we hardly see any other ships. The wildlife isn’t what it was before industrialised whaling. Dr Fox has plenty of sad statistics such as the North Pacific right whale, which summers in these waters: there are only 30 left. Yet, there are other, incredible, stories of the resilience and recovery of species, such as the grey-footed albatross, again hunted to literally the gates of extinction, before the last few pairs of birds “saved themselves”.
On our first full day at sea, we see a humpback whale, a pod of five orcas and huge armies of Pacific white-sided dolphins. The orcas are particularly moving, because with flat seas and our engines turned off, we can get close enough to observe the playful, resting group of “residents” for some time. Hearing their exhalations and seeing the life-affirming spray of their breath in the stillness, it feels like they are part of ourselves, and that damage to such species harms us and the whole world. It’s not difficult to see how these nutrient-rich, productive oceans inspired the formation of Greenpeace in 1971, and it’s still heartbreakingly beautiful: an entire ecosystem of forested mountains, islands, fjords and channels. Vancouver Island is huge and surprisingly mountainous, and takes a couple of days to pass, after which we have some rough patches at Cape Caution and Milbanke Sound before we use some smaller channels to sail through the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest, the wet, misty home of “spirit bears”, a subspecies of brown bears, up to 20 per cent of which are born white. Sadly, though our eyes are peeled, we don’t see any, but we do spot a rare fin whale.
My first sight of Alaska is as we wake up in the channel between Gravina and Revillagigedo islands, the latter having been named by Captain George Vancouver in 1793. Vancouver was a British officer for the Royal Navy who surveyed the entire coastline between here and San Francisco, naming Revillagigedo for Juan Vicente de Guemes, then viceroy of Mexico, who was the second Count of Revillagigedo. The views line up with expectations: huge, rolling, luxuriantly pure-looking forests, then, at the waterline, scant, weathered-looking housing paired with old pick-ups. Ketchikan, too, the state’s southernmost city, with a population of 8,000, is somewhat typecast, a fishing town swarming with cruise-ship visitors and a waterfront that has been spoiled with tacky modern buildings.
It helps that we see the town with a native Alaskan tour guide called Joe Williams, a Tlingit (pronounced “klingkat”) tribal leader whose real name is Ka Xesh X’e. The Tlingits are one of the seven officially recognised ethnic groups in the state, and he explains how members are still divided into “eagles” and “ravens”. There are 8,000 Alaska natives in this south-east region, 5,500 of whom are Tlingits, with their own distinct language and 10,000 years of culture behind them.
Creek Street is an atmospheric restored historic alley of wooden buildings built on a boardwalk on stilts over Ketchikan Creek in 1903, but again, it’s thronged with tourists. The city’s best selling point is as a jumping-off point to the vast Tongass National Forest, and the Misty Fjords National Monument in particular. Even better for us is that from Ketchikan, we sail right into it, after a lunch of burnt tofu banh mi and chocolate mousse back on board. Deep glacial fjords, dense forests and sweeping granite cliffs are interspersed with wetlands and estuaries.
We anchor for the night in Punchbowl Cove, before kayaking the following morning in Rudyard Cove, also known as “God’s pocket”. Having seen several humpback whales in the area, a group of four of us are sitting in our kayaks at the mouth of a cove when one surfaces, slowly and suddenly out of still water, about 10 metres in front of us. The size of the creature is genuinely awesome, and we spend the rest of the session hoping it will happen again. But even when we don’t have any more close encounters, it strikes me that just being in a kayak as opposed to on a ship makes a huge difference when it comes to the quality of the experience.
In the afternoon, we hike across a partially boardwalked muskeg – a swampy bogland surrounded by dense forest and wildflowers. The air tastes so pure that I want to eat it. It’s a warm-up to the following day, when a few of us go on a three-hour guided “bushwhack” in thick, untrammeled forest in Thoms Place State Park. As we move, my lungs, brain and body feel like they are waking up after a long slumber. To experience nature as our ancestors saw it, without human interference, is one of the definitions of wilderness in an American context. It’s a valuable principle, but one that too rarely gets put into practice. This is only even possible with a boat and crew such as we have, equipped with kayaks, skiffs, rubber boots and tough waterproofs, not to mention staff who can navigate using a compass and have emergency training.
It also helps that there’s no internet connection on the boat, and little mobile-phone signal throughout the trip. Only occasionally, as we briefly pass civilisation, do we get signal, but it’s weak and soon disappears. One such moment is as we pass Wrangell, which was previously known as Fort Stikine and leased by the Hudson’s Bay Company from Russia as a fur trading post and fortification in the 1830s (Alaska was famously bought by the US for US$7.2 million in 1867).
Petersburg, population 3,000, is at the northern tip of Mitkof Island, and one of the most evocative towns we stop at, with its historic buildings, Norwegian ancestry and frontier feel. Ours is the only tourist boat docked at the harbour, where local boats have names including American Patriot, Marathon, Theresa Marie, Teal, Northern Song, Valkyrie, Lucky Strike, Pacific Belle and Kim. A couple of hours to wander the town alone is another valuable change from a regular cruise, where fewer stops are made and there’s no time for solitude.
Sailing north through Frederick Sound and Chatham Strait, vast empty mountain panoramas prepare us for Glacier Bay National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site that contains about 1,000 glaciers and which British-born American mountaineer John Muir visited in 1879 with the help of Tlingit guides. His writings about the area’s pristine wilderness prompted the first cruise ships to visit in 1883, and ultimately he convinced the US government under Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Park Service for the purposes of conservation and spiritual enrichment. In the 1880s, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, an American writer, geographer and photographer who became the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, wrote the first guidebooks and cemented its appeal.
The good news is that, today, Glacier Bay is just one part of the second-largest conserved wilderness area in the world after Antarctica. Glacier Bay National Park is 1.3 million hectares, and was covered in ice until 1795, explains Jake McFee, our obligatory National Park Service guide who boards our boat at the visitor centre at Bartlett Cove at sunrise. Among some notable statistics, such as the fact that here you’re the farthest you can get from a road anywhere in the US (a distance of 100km), is the fact that of the 600,000 visitors a year, 90 per cent arrive on large cruise ships and only 5,000 people set foot on land (as we do, on a short hike from the visitor centre). Of those that do make landfall, only 1,000 people a year use the backcountry. So if you wanted to experience wilderness as defined in the Wilderness Act of 1964 – that is, uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable and undeveloped – this would be it.
Our first target, though, is the beautiful, powder-blue Margerie Glacier, which stretches from the Fairweather mountains right down to the sea and is 40km long, 1.5km wide, 122 metres thick and receives 300 metres of snow a year. Yet despite the fact that it takes 300 years for snow and ice to travel from top to bottom, and 45 metres of it is underwater, past statistics reveal the bad news as being catastrophic. This glacier, McFee explains, was once more than 1.2km thick, so is now barely a 10th of its original size. A large mass of bedrock is now exposed at part of the terminus, and there are fears that it will end up like the nearby Grand Pacific Glacier, which has receded so much it no longer touches the water. Because the ice is still moving forward at a rate of about 10 metres per day, visitors can still see it breaking off and calving into the sea. This happens less than an hour after we drop anchor, the dramatic shotgun-style cracks accompanied by strong ripples. “A quarter of a mile [0.4km] out is a safe distance because it’s the equivalent of a 10-storey building coming down,” Jake says. Ironically, though, because we aren’t able to move closer, I don’t feel able to fully appreciate the scale of what’s happening. Only when an enormous cruise ship pulls up in front of it do the monstrous proportions become apparent. With few of the park’s glaciers growing in size thanks to global warming, I reflect sadly that such sights may soon be a thing of the past.
It’s a similar feeling with grizzly bears, which though we’re early in the season prove few and far between despite the relative abundance of marine food on this coast. On a final 10am kayak near Glacier Bay, though, we get lucky. I’m ahead of the group when I round a headline and see a young grizzly bear scavenging on the beach, straight ahead of me. Though it seems small at first, my kakak starts to drift closer, and when I look at it through my binoculars, it turns and looks straight back at me. It has smelt us. I hold its gaze until it turns and runs back up the beach, before I reverse slowly backwards. With hunting still allowed by permit outside the national parks here, I’m again left hoping for its future.
After a stop at scenic town Haines, we make for Juneau, an extraordinary town set at the foot of steep mountains and still only accessible by boat. It’s main attraction is the Mendenhall Glacier, another National Park Service site and another place of monumental beauty. Again, though, man’s despoiling of the environment is never far from mind, as I read on the ranger’s noticeboard that an off-leash dog has crushed the eggs of an entire colony of Arctic terns, which literally circumnavigate the globe every year to raise their young.
Back on the boat, for one last time, Jeremy consoles us by reading aloud the Robert Service poem The World’s All Right, which includes the lines: “There’s much that’s mighty strange, no doubt/But Nature knows what she’s about/And in a million years or so/What ho! We’ll know more than today we know.”
The extent to which nature can still look magnificent, even having suffered huge degradation, is one of the conundrums of this trip. Hopefully in less than a million years, there will be electric-powered, all-vegan cruises, and marine, bird and animal life will have bounced back. And if that’s even more optimistic than Service, the first step is to look, breathe and appreciate what’s still here.
Updated: November 29, 2018 12:23 PM