Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
More than two million visitors a year traverse the great marine highway of Alaska’s Inside Passage in the warmth and comfort of vast floating resorts. A bus ride to a glacier or a quick helicopter flight through a fjord is as close as many travelers get to the silence and solitude of “The Last Frontier.” For those seeking a closer look at the inside of the Inside Passage, several operators offer small-ship cruises that combine wilderness excursions with rich cultural experiences in smaller communities.
For our first trip to the region my wife, Jean, and I chose a six-day cruise operated by Alaskan Dream Cruises on a comfortable catamaran that we shared with just thirty-four other passengers, a group size that allowed us to get closer to nature and the daily lives of modern Alaskans.
Sitka, Baranof Island: Our Inside Passage journey began with a day in Sitka. Located on the west coast of Baranof Island, the city of 9,000 has few facilities to handle large ships and avoids the often-overwhelming invasions of other Alaskan ports.
Forewarned that rain falls 275 days of the year, we were prepared for a wet, misty morning as we set out to explore this former capital of Russian Alaska. Grey overcast clouds hung low against the lower slopes of mountains cloaked in deep green Sitka spruce and western hemlock. We strolled the short length of the business district on Lincoln Street past reminders of Sitka’s heritage, including the Russian Bishop’s House and onion domes and gold crosses atop Saint Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral. A handful of locals exercised their dogs on the lawn overlooking Crescent Harbor. Shrieks of seagulls harassing heavily loaded returning fishing vessels pierced the quiet of the damp mist.
At Sitka National Historical Park, we viewed a compact but comprehensive display of the natural and early human history of the island. Two docents of native Tlingit descent explained the matrilineal kinship system of their ancestors’ society. Tribes are divided into two groups, called moieties, named Eagle and Raven, then into clans. Each clan is made up of multiple extended family units and claims its own history, songs, and totems. Children are considered born into the mother’s clan, and property and hereditary roles pass through that mother’s line. When Jean commented on some fine examples of Tlingit weaving on display, they brought out some of their own work and described how they gathered, prepared, and used their materials, including mountain goat wool, grasses, and cedar bark.
Tlingit master wood carver Tommy Joseph demonstrated tools he employs for sculpting totem poles and explained the process of carving and steaming a traditional canoe from yellow cedar timber. Outside, we followed a quiet wooded trail through the park to view an collection of more than a dozen totem poles that began with the return of examples sent to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Totem poles identify a family’s lineage through mythical figures and heraldic crest emblems. As a typical pole survives for around 100 years in the open, the originals decay and are replaced by re-carved poles that continue to tell the stories of their creators.
A short walk from the park, the Sheldon Jackson Museum holds one of the oldest ethnographic collections in Alaska. Cultural objects from watercraft to tools, equipment, clothing and ceremonial objects, such as masks, represent the crafts of native groups across the entire state. A guide described the stratified social class system within tribal clans and how individuals were ranked according to their wealth and achievements. Low-class was not a desirable ranking. The nitckakaku, as they were called, slept in the coldest spot near the door of communal houses and served as the first defense against intruders.
Sitka is proud of its contribution to Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin’s survey of the Pacific Coast that led to their seminal book on marine biology, Between Pacific Tides. In 1932, Jack and his wife, Sasha, hosted Rickets and his friend mythologist Joseph Campbell on their boat, the Grampus, where they spent ten weeks studying the intertidal zone. Published in 1939, the book emphasized the interconnectedness of animals and their environment – a central tenet of modern biology. To this day it remains the best-selling title of Stanford University Press. The Sitka Sound Science Center continues their work by promoting understanding of Alaska’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems through scientific education and research.
Our day ashore concluded with a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center and a performance by the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers in a modern Tlingit tribal community house. Dressed in colorful black and red blankets, the dancers span all ages and present stories from the oral tradition. The Raptor Center treats around 200 injured birds each year with a goal of healing and releasing them back into the wild as demonstrated by eagles testing their reacquired flight skills in the Bald Eagle Flight Training Center.
Sitka to Glacier Bay: We joined our Inside Passage home for the next nine days that evening. The Alaskan Dream is a 104-foot, streamlined catamaran that carries up to 40 passengers. Built by Allen Marine, maker of ferries that rescued survivors from the “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009, we felt comfortable in the care of Captain Eric Morrow who has worked for the company for more than 15 years.
From a gentle swell in Sitka Sound, we sailed north into the smoother waters of Neva Strait. The clouds had lifted revealing dense forest cover that rose from the water’s edge to rugged ridge lines bordering the narrow passage. Occasional groves of bleached white tree skeletons scattered through the otherwise pristine conifer canopy are likely caused by recent extreme drought conditions, the first in South East Alaska’s recorded history. Tragic though this may be for the local environment, it delivered unusually pleasant sunny weather for most of our trip.
On learning that we were entering Peril Strait, I checked Exploring Alaska and British Columbia, a fascinating compendium of maps annotated with notes on historic sites, shipwrecks, and other catastrophes. Too narrow and winding for large cruise ships, this 50-mile long scenic connector between Baranof and Chichagof Islands is aptly named. Many vessels, including in 1883 the Eureka from San Francisco, have come to grief on the rocks. The most tragic incident, when 150 native hunters died after eating poisonous shellfish in the area in 1799, is memorialized in the names Poison Cove and Deadman’s Reach.
From our sheltered overnight anchorage in the temperate rainforest setting of Saook Bay, we sailed out into Chatham Strait on the great marine highway of the Inside Passage. Formed by continuing tectonic forces and shaped by massive glaciers over millions of years, this network of deep-water passages weaving through elongated islands from Puget Sound to the Alaskan panhandle provides a preferred route for shipping as it is largely sheltered from the restless Pacific Ocean to the west. Distinctive smooth landscape features distinguish lower glaciated terrain from rugged mountain peaks that once protruded through ice that carved the now flooded valleys of the ocean highway.
As with many other Inside Passage landmarks, Admiralty Island to our east was named by Captain Vancouver in honor of his Royal Navy employer. Most of the island is federally protected wilderness habitat for bald eagles, brown bears, and Sitka black-tailed deer. With an estimated population of 1,600 brown-bears, Ursus arctos outnumber human residents by nearly three to one.
We detoured westward into Freshwater Bay, a long inlet on the eastern shore of Chichagof Island. Several miles into the channel, the Alaska Dream dropped anchor at Cedar Cove and launched a Demaree Inflatable Boat (DIB) for our exploration of the intertidal zone exposed by low tide. Bountiful marine life covering the rocks illustrated the wave shock theory developed by marine biologist Ed Ricketts on his visit to Sitka from Monterey in 1932. He noted that “the fauna of the surf swept rock outside Sitka resembles that of the similarly exposed California coast nearly 2000 miles distant more than it does that of similar type of bottom protected from surf only three miles away.” This protected inlet site exhibited tangled layers of anemones, sea cucumbers, sea stars and other species seldom present in such abundance on rocks facing the open ocean.
Cedar Island sits high on a curved spit of pebbles and shells. I pushed through dense willow thicket into the shade of tall pines crowding the water’s edge. Had anyone before me stepped onto this springy mat of pine needles and green deerheart ground cover, I wondered? The answer lay just few feet away where a rusting, cast-iron skeleton of an ancient wood-burning stove lay propped against a tree trunk. With no other signs of habitation along the coast, speculation on its origin centered on a long-gone logger’s float house.
Our journey continued up Chatham Strait and veered north-west into Icy Strait, named for ice floes that threatened Captain Vancouver’s sloop HMS Discovery on the British exploration of the west coast of North America in 1792. Distant snow-capped peaks glistened in the setting sun as we made our way steadily towards Glacier Bay.
A Day in Glacier Bay
I woke next morning as the boat docked at the Bartlett Cove national park headquarters to pick up a ranger naturalist and two members of the Tlingit tribe who would join us for our day in Glacier Bay. Entry to the National Park and Preserve is strictly regulated by the NPS to protect wildlife and other resources. Large cruise ships are limited to two per day. Twenty-five permits are issued for smaller vessels. These are in high-demand. I spoke with a private boat owner later in the week who had submitted multiple requests on consecutive days without success. On-shore facilities at Bartlett Cove include a visitor center, an information station for boaters and campers and Glacier Bay Lodge, the only hotel accommodations in the park. A recently completed Huna Tribal House is the first permanent clan house in Glacier Bay since Tlingit villages were destroyed by an advancing glacier over 250 years ago.
In Vancouver’s time, the site of the tribal house was under the tip of glacier ice that gouged a former river valley into a deep-water bay. When environmentalist John Muir visited 90 years later, the ice was retreating at one mile per year and had receded 40 miles inland. Today, open water extends 65 miles to the tidewater meeting of the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. Our voyage through Glacier Bay traced a journey through time. As the ice retreats, lichens and weather break exposed rock down into soil. Mosses take hold and a plant progression follows. Successively younger landscapes appeared as we traveled north. Dense forest gave way to willows and shrubs, then to grass and finally bare rock and ice of the modern glaciers.
Nicole, our ranger naturalist, explained the passing landscape features and abundant bird species perched on cliff walls and skimming the water. Near Marble Islands she identified Tufted puffins, Bald eagles, Marbled Murrelets, surf scoters, and more. Where a rushing creek emptied into the bay, we spotted a brown bear exploring willows along the beach. Excitement at the sight of dozens of mountain goats, several with young, picking their way skillfully across steep, rocky ledges on Gloomy Knob turned to concern when two wolves were seen peering over the cliff top. The Tlingt name, Janwu aani, for this steep forbidding rock face translates appropriately as Mountain Goat Land. Almost simultaneously, on the other side of the deck, humpback whale flukes broke the surface before sliding into the depths. And just as Nicole was declaring that we had exceeded our allotted wildlife ration for the day, nature delivered a bonus — a school of porpoises leaped gracefully ahead of the bow.
The day’s limit of two cruise ships had already arrived when we reached the end of Tarr Inlet about 55 nautical miles from Bartlett Cove. Towering many stories high in port, they appeared little more than children’s toys against the massive surrounding cliffs and jagged ice at the foot of the Margerie Glacier. The air temperature dropped perceptibly as the Alaska Dream edged closer to where the 250-foot-high, one-mile wide deeply crevassed wall of ice met the water. Of eleven glaciers in the park that reach tidal waters, Margerie is one of the most active. Small, white icebergs calved from the face scattered across the surface of the bay and drifted slowly south. Mount Fairweather’s sharp, snow-covered peak lived up to its name, rising over 15,300-foot beyond the wide glacial river valley into the clear blue, noon-day sky.
To the north, Margerie’s immediate neighbor, the Grand Pacific Glacier, snaked 25-miles into the St. Elias Mountains of Canada after crossing the international border just a few miles from our viewpoint on the bay. After an hour or so of contemplating this scene, described by Muir as “a picture of icy wildness unspeakably pure and sublime,” Captain Eric began our return passage to our next destination, Juneau, the capital of Alaska.
Juneau: We woke next morning in Auke Bay about 12 miles up the coast from Juneau. On the short coach ride to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, our driver regaled us with tongue-in-cheek insights into Alaskan politics as viewed from a capital city with no land connection to the bulk of its citizens. Repeated efforts to move the legislature closer to the center of population near Anchorage have failed due to the unacceptable cost of a move intended to reduce the cost of government.
Several short hikes from the visitor center led to views of the tip of the glacier. Willow and Sitka spruce bursting with fresh new buds lined the flat, one-mile paved path to Nuggett Falls, a powerful cascade that thunders over a wide inclined rockface into Mendenhall Lake. In damp soil of a gravel floodplain at the foot of the falls, we discovered the recent impressions of bear footprints. Attracted by salmon spawn in nearby Steep Creek, according to the Forest Service, about 15 black bears are active in the area.
In Juneau, we toured the recently rebuilt Alaska State Museum. A dramatic atrium lobby featuring a life-size eagle nesting tree and a detailed map of the state set in a terrazzo floor opens into spacious galleries devoted to the cultural, economic, and political histories of Alaska. In large, clear display cases, the exhibits were notable for their presentation of valuable artifacts carefully selected to represent the variety, richness and depth of the region’s native heritage.
The tourism, administrative and port facilities of the capital city are crowded together on a narrow shoreline at the foot of Mount Roberts. As three huge cruise ships had just disgorged thousands of passengers directly into the popular shopping area, we abandoned plans to browse the craft and souvenir stores clustered along Franklin Street and retreated to our ship.
To Ketchikan and points south: The remaining days of our cruise included visiting two of the region’s most dramatic ice carved landscapes and exploring smaller communities on islands scattered along the route to our southerly destination of Ketchikan.
Word for word, our voyage perfectly matched John Muir’s description of his 1879 journey. “One is borne smoothly over calm blue waters, through the midst of countless forest-clad islands. The ordinary discomforts of a sea voyage are not felt, for nearly all the whole long way is on inland waters that are about as waveless as rivers and lakes. So numerous are the islands that they seem to have been sown broadcast; long tapering vistas between the largest of them open in every direction.”
Muir also famously described Tracy Arm, about 45 miles south of Juneau, as “A wild unfinished Yosemite” for its towering vertical cliffs and twin Sawyer Glaciers scouring the head of a long narrow fjord. The Alaskan Dream motored steadily through calm water in the early morning light and gently swung around a sharp ninety-degree turn to the east. Our paced slowed rapidly as the number and size of icebergs calving from the retreating glaciers choked the way ahead. The crew launched the DIB and plotted the safest route for us to follow though the dense ice field until the captain decided that risk of damage to the propeller was too high to proceed. Our disappointment at not reaching the glaciers was compensated by local excursions in the DIB to inspect waterfalls cascading down the rugged, glaciated cliffs and up-close views of the intense blue glow emanating from inside larger floating bergs.
Located at the mouth of the Stikine River that provides access up to 130 miles into the mountains of Canada, Wrangell (population around 2,500) has served strategic roles under four nations — Tlingit, Russia, Britain, and the U.S. The booms and busts of fur trading, fishing, gold mining and timber each contributed their own distinctive landmarks to the community but none are more intriguing than forty-plus ancient carved rocks on Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park. We stepped carefully around these artifacts scattered along the high-tide line. Archaeologists say, they could be more than 1,000 years old and there is “no way to discern what the designs really meant to their makers and users.”
For centuries, the main clan houses and totems of the local Tlingit tribe stood on a low island in Wrangell harbor. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a community house in the traditional style recalled by surviving elders. The island and house were named for Chief Shakes, a distinguished hereditary leadership title passed down through generations. We walked across a narrow footbridge lined by red flags imprinted with black Tlingit designs to be greeted at the entrance by a tribal member in traditional dress. He invited us into the darkened interior where we heard local renditions of stories about Raven, the mythical trickster figure of many Northwest people.
For a scenic view of the harbor, we climbed a short, steep boardwalk trail through a conifer forest to the top of Mount Dewey. A sign noted that, when the peripatetic John Muir visited Wrangell, his campfire on the hill cast an eerie glow onto the clouds alarming the residents below: a modern sign at the summit warns “No Campfires.”
One of the largest islands in the United States with nearly 1,000 miles of coastline, Europeans largely ignored Prince of Wales Island until gold and timber interests arrived in the late 1800s. The primary economic force today is commercial fishing with tourism, including sport fishing, growing in importance. The Alaskan Dream called on two distinct communities located just 25 miles apart on the east coast of the island.
Thorne Bay, established as a floating logging camp in 1961, grew to over 1500 residents at the peak of the timber boom. A bold remnant of those days, a huge, claw-like grappling hook overlooking the bay serves as a welcoming gateway to visitors. Current residents of the town of 300-plus met us at the dock to share stories of their close-knit, frontier lifestyle and a display of local crafts.
The Organized Village of Kasaan has origins in the arrival of a group of Haida in the early 1700s to prosper on the abundant salmon and wildlife of the area. The present community of about 50 residents lies at the entrance to a forest trail leading to Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House, the only remaining traditional Haida longhouse in the country. Dense glades of spruce, brilliant green with new spring shoot tips, absorbed the sound of our walk along the moss carpeted pathway lined with new and ancient totems. Our guide pointed out one of the oldest cultivated gardens on the Pacific Coast, where potatoes, one of the most important crops for the Haida, have been planted for more than 200 years.
With a population of around 1,500, the Metlakatla Indian Community of the Annette Islands is the only native reservation in the state. Our guide to the historic Duncan Cottage Museum related the story of the migration of the Tsimshian people from Canada in 1887 and modern efforts to preserve their indigenous culture, including teaching the Sm’algyax language in grade school and developing original songs and dance performances based on traditional themes. A colorful presentation in the tribal longhouse overlooking the harbor featured vibrant dancers, from babes in arms to senior citizens, whirling to the pounding beat of a wooden box drum.
Waking in the Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness on the last morning of our cruise, the view framed by our cabin window could have been one of artist Albert Bierstadt’s, idealized Victorian panoramas of the American West. Wispy traces of cloud clung to steep, green-forested slopes where crystalline waterfalls cascaded into mirror-smooth Rudyerd Bay. As the Alaskan Dream sailed through yet another extraordinary vista, I realized that even after more than a week and over 750 nautical miles of travel, we had barely scratched the surface of the scenic wonders of the Inside Passage.
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IF YOU GO: Information on Alaskan Dream Cruises. Many travel agencies have information on other small ship cruise operators. We booked through Adventure Life and found them very helpful. Most small ship cruises in Southeast Alaska begin and end in Ketchikan, Juneau, or Sitka; Alaska Airlines serves all three cities.
Resources:  Birton Hilson Evergreen Pacific Exploring Alaska & British Columbia, Evergreen Pacific Publishing, Everett WA (1997).  Edward F. Ricketts “Notes and observations, Mostly Ecological, Resulting from Northern Pacific Collecting Trips Chiefly in Southeastern Alaska, with Especial Reference to Wave Shock as a Factor in Littoral Ecology,” (1932) Reprinted in Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka Alaska. Ed by Janice M. Straley, Shorefast Editions (2015).  ] John Muir. Travels in Alaska (1915) .