The magnificent waterways of Alaska’s inside passage are a sight to behold. Outside cruising season, the crowds make way for a tranquil and unforgettable experience
In the shadowy depths, I glimpsed movement. Could it be? The dark form began drifting towards us, unhurried, each sweep of a powerful tail bringing it closer to the glassy surface of the ocean. I suspect I stopped breathing. At last, the enormous barnacled head of a humpback whale emerged from the depths, exhaling with an explosive and slightly odorous blast of mist. His eye turned towards me for what could have only been a fraction of a second, but in that moment, my world stood still. Too soon, the rest of his body arched through the water, lifting the elegant contours of his flukes skyward. They hovered, waving gently as if in farewell. Then he was gone.
Our small boat rocked precariously as I leapt to my feet, pumping the air and whooping with sheer elation.
Over the previous two weeks, I had been considerably further north, near the remote town of Eagle, Alaska, trying my hand at the sport of dog mushing. It’s a sparsely populated area, even more so in the colder months. The solitude was divine. The next leg of my journey, exploring the famously picturesque Inside Passage, also offered a level of tranquillity not possible from roughly April to September when waterways and ports are jam-packed. I had chosen to travel in March, just outside ‘cruising’ season.
I had disembarked from a ferry in the diminutive port town of Tanakee Springs just the day before and offers had been coming thick and fast. In fact, the first occurred before my feet even touched dry land. A returning resident extended an invitation of a hike along the pristine shoreline and into dewy forest still clinging to the last of the winter snow. “I’ll take you through Bear Gully,” she said. My face must have portrayed a level of apprehension. “It’s okay,” she reassured me. “They haven’t killed anyone there yet that I know of.” It was difficult deciding whether to be relieved or disappointed at days end, having not glimpsed a single one. We did, however, spot a selection of log cabins nestled among the trees away from town. In true Alaskan style, there will always be a hot refreshment for an unexpected visitor, and amusing tales to boot. Mostly about hunting. And fishing. Men particularly seem to talk about little else.
While exploring the marina, some local boys suggested I might like to come bear hunting. Walking along the pebbled shore, locals proudly displayed their greenhouses bursting with goodness, vital to extend their growing season and be mostly self-sufficient. The local photographer on her bicycle was never without her camera. Slung around her neck, she was always at the ready to snap yet another postcard shot. It’s just that sort of place. My accommodation host, once he’d finished chopping a mountain of firewood, insisted on a spin across the ocean in the golden hour of dusk. With a backdrop of spruce-covered mountains still dusted in white, we watched orca whales cruising the shoreline, and here our gentle giant of the deep made his brief but unforgettable appearance.
This astonishing welcome became the theme of my wanderings from port to port. There exists a deeper awareness of others and their wellbeing, perhaps stemming from surviving in a harsh climate that dictates an extra level of neighbourly support. Travelling via ferry was no exception. With barely a tourist in sight, local travellers delighted in sharing their knowledge of their home state, and often their life stories.
There is a reason cruising these waterways is so popular. Water lapping on rocky shorelines, hugged by flourishing forests, slowly giving way to towering snowy peaks – it’s a view that only reveals its full glory from the deck of a boat. Toasty warm in a down jacket, I never tired of the wintery wonderland gliding by.
Thirty-five ports are serviced by the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, covering a staggering 5600 kilometres, and stretching from the far west Aleutian Chain all the way to Bellingham, Washington. The well-known Inside Passage contains 14 of them, each having its own unique character and attractions. Many of the communities are not connected by road, or even to the mainland in some cases, making travel a uniquely exciting adventure in itself.
Facilities on individual vessels vary depending on the route. Mainline ferries generally boast passenger and vehicle transport, cabin accommodation (including some with wheelchair access), a dining room, cafeteria, comfortable observation lounges, covered heated solarium, movie lounge, children’s play area and laundry. Day ferries connect the smaller communities. Taking breaks from gawking at the splendour in the outside chill, the cafeteria was a welcome sanctuary, and where many of those engaging local stories unfolded.
When the ferry timetable didn’t deposit me where I wanted to be, I climbed aboard a seaplane. It’s a very different view soaring above the vast mountain ranges that skirt each side of the deep blue sea passage. Departing one location, we thundered across the ocean, rose up over the opposite shoreline, and there she was! A female bear and two adorable cubs ambling along the waterline.
Which ports you choose to visit will largely depend on your time frame and particular interests. Ketchikan, the home of the totem, is an immersion into Alaskan Native history. I hear the fishing is pretty good too. Gustavus, where hiking and bird watching are favourite pastimes, is the gateway to stunning Glacier Bay National Park. If you are a history buff, Sitka is the place for Russia’s influence on the region. Animal lovers can’t go past Haines, renowned for its bald eagle population.
Let’s be honest. No matter which ports or ferry routes you settle on, the majestic scenery, stunning wildlife, pristine ocean and unbelievably welcoming inhabitants will put on a show you’ll never forget. Your ferry cabin might not have a spa, but I promise you, every aspect of your Alaskan journey will be top-shelf.