Alaska’s Inside Passage – Among soaring eagles and floating glaciers

Posted by Pat on June 20, 2014 in Travel |

15-19 June 2014

Tlingit robe on Kake

Tlingit robe on Kake

Cloudy and a comfortable 50° as we dock in Kake on Kupreanof Island. The island, named for the governor of Russian America, may have been visited by Sir Francis Drake in 1579, but it’s greatest fame comes from resident Tlingits being bombarded by the US Army in 1869. The 52×20 mile island is now home to 600 residents and the world’s tallest totem pole at 128′ (built to celebrate the centennial of US purchase of Alaska). Talked with a carver and a weaver; locals are sparse but friendly; saw many eagles, a black bear cub, and numerous ramshackle houses. The low islands in the bay are where they bury their dead. Today, Father’s Day, this island isn’t any livelier.

Kayaking in Hobart Bay

Kayaking in Hobart Bay

The Baranof Dream recrosses Frederick Sound destined for Hobart Bay where there is to be a bonfire tonight, something perhaps out of Animal Farm of Survivor? Seas are like smooth blue glass while above fluffy white clouds dot a blue sky. An idyllic backdrop of ice and snow-capped mountains surround us as we sail around Three Brothers and Five Finger islands spotting Stellar Sea Lions, eagles, and looking for transient orcas. Note of interest: the transient orca eats sea lions and other sources of meat while hunting in packs, the resident orcas are salmon eaters. Be sure to hang with residents – true wherever you travel throughout the world.

What an exceptional day! Sunrise 3:58. I awoke in Hobart Bay to crisp temperatures and glassy waters. The weather only improved to bring blue skies, warm temps and incredibly calm seas. My day was filled with activities starting with kayaking around the coastline. Eagles and their nests abound. Clams along the shore added humor to the scene as they sent their spit a couple feet in the air. This secluded bay was once a busy logging camp, now owned by a private logging company and our cruise leases a dock here.

Eagles are everywhere

Eagles are everywhere

After over an hour of marvelous kayaking, we rode our inflatable boat around the bay for sightings of otters, harbor seals, and more eagles. The bay is surrounded by jagged snow-covered mountain peaks of 4000-6000′, incredibly calm waters and dense tree-covered mountainsides.

Having worked up an appetite, I enjoyed a delicious meal of BBQ ribs, corn on the cob and all the other picnic fixings. Then it was time for a walk in the trees to burn off a couple calories before it was my turn to drive an ATV around the logging roads. Much fun over the rough road, across streams and thru the never ending trees in search of wild life. Of course, many eagles. Better still was the backside of a large black bear scurrying across the road. A full day, or so I thought.

Whales feeding near Hobart Bay

Whales feeding near Hobart Bay

We left dock about dinner time and could not have sailed more than five miles before the ship slowed and we could see a large pod of humpbacks feeding just off shore. I sped on deck for a spectacular show of dozens of humpbacks feeding in the waters surrounding the ship. Cameras were snapping and dinner forgotten. What an incredible show as repeatedly the whales surfaced to feed, dive, then roll to the surface for another run at the dinner table. On all sides of the ship, sometimes within feet, the whales surfaced. We must have snapped at least 2000 photos of whale’s tails. The captain, in no hurry, circled around the bay for over two hours while the whales continued to put on their show. Circles of bubbles, heads breaking the surface of the water, gaping mouths gulping in tons of water and food, pushing out the water with their one-ton tongue, swallowing their delectable seafood feast. Repeated over and over by a score of humpbacks, each tail a distinctive identifier.

As the sun sets at 9:46 we lay off Sunset Island watching and listening to a large colony of stellar sea lions. What a great end to a perfect day.

Anchored in Tracy Arm

Anchored in Tracy Arm

Today, Tuesday June 17, we sail into Tracy Arm fjord, 32 miles of steep granite walls and dense wilderness that John Muir called a “wild unfinished Yosemite.” Glaciers grind their way from the Stikine Icefield into the fjord where we are able to see huge areas of glossy-blue ice. Narrow stripes of waterfall wend their way down thousands of feet of vertical, barren rock stained with colorful striations of iron and quartz. I can hear the voice of the retreating Sawyer Glacier as its cracking and roaring reminds me it is always moving, slowly disappearing from this planet. Arctic Terns wheel and squeal above, hoping for some calving so as to expose some tasty morsels. I hope for the same and am occasionally rewarded with medium to large ice falls exposing the denser blue ice behind. I play name that bergy-bit as a mink, a mouse, turtles, lizards, swans and ships float past, some with harbor seals hitching a ride. Using the DIB, I raft out in light showers and triple layers of clothing for an even closer look of the glacier.

Marjorie Glacier in Tracy Arm

Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm

We slowly exit Tracy Arm to the banging and scraping of ice, thru the narrow turns and down the arm to the South Sawyer Glacier. Majestic 4000-6000′ glacially carved granite cliffs hang above us on both sides, countless ribbons of water fall down bare rock faces to add to the 1000′ of water beneath us. Misty clouds drift in and out of valleys and atop the rounded glacially-carved peaks both obscuring them and dramatizing my view. John Muir was correct when he wrote that this was all glacially carved, a geological cousin to Yosemite. Here, the story of Tracy Arm is ice.

“No ice-work that I have ever seen surpasses this.” John Muir

An advantage of our small ship and excellent captain is when we turn south hugging the coast of Endicott Arm and watch for bears. (Though, I have also heard we turned south because of 30-40 knot winds to the north in Stephens Passage.) Meanwhile, I relax in a warm lounge, watch a movie on glaciers and global warming, and listen to a lecture on fauna while misty scenery passes by and cookie time begins. If a bear is spotted, I will know as the boat will slow. In the meantime, it is an endless passing landscape of Christmas trees. Happy hour brings a specialty drink the same aquamarine color as the seas.

DSC00946Beautiful sunset, streaks of sunlight break through clouds and spotlight nearby islands, creating a tall dash of a rainbow in the east. Rougher seas but we are never out of sight of snow-clad mountains. We pass a lone eagle perched upon a large berg as we sail northwest to Juneau. Sunset 10:06.

Fast facts: Bring a ski cap for the glacier areas; a steak is always optional at dinner and they are excellent; most times it is warmer than I thought it would be, the exception being when around the glaciers and when ship turns into the wind; if you want to see salmon running plan to come later in June; no cellular in Tracy Arm and Hobart Bay; some of Anthony’s special happy hour drinks are strange concoctions may have cute names and colors, but the mix of alcohol would challenge the heartiest of drinker; we are lucky to have an excellent tour leader in Larry West.

Sunrise 3:49. Today we explore Auke Bay and dock in the Alaskan state capital of Juneau, reachable only by air and sea. My day starts with temps at 48° but feels warmer. It’s cloudy and light rain may fall. We dock at the Allen’s private dock, several miles out of town. We are bused to nearby Mendenhall Glacier where, just like in 1995, I am able to spend time at the Visitor Center, the glacier, and on a short nature walk to the falls.

As we drive into downtown Juneau, I see four large ships in port, a fifth coming down the channel. Our bus deposits us downtown Juneau where it becomes a repeat of Ketchikan with over 10,000 passengers dumped into a town of a few blocks. There are 41 miles of roads but fortunately 262 miles of hiking trails? I am in need of an escape so I choose to ride the Mount Roberts Tram and hike the 2-mile trail to Gastineau Peak. It is a challenge few take, I am rewarded with incredible views, and I just make to back to the tram before the downpour! I attempt to walk about town but it is crowded, filled with jewelry stores, wet and cold. The library is the best refuge is town before catching the bus back to the ship.

Tonight, the ship sails a couple hours to their exclusive Orca Point Lodge on Colt Island where we walk ashore for a fantastic dinner of prime rib, salmon, and king crab. Later, on the beach, we heat s’mores over a beach fire.

It’s an early night as half the passengers have gone from sinus problems from the severe pine and spruce pollen to chest colds. Today’s awful weather probably will significantly increase the incidence of coughs per passenger.

Sunrise 3:42. Thursday 19 June means we dock in Skagway, the Klondike gold rush city, where we board the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad to retrace the path of gold-seekers into Canada. We arrive accompanied by a Disney ship which joins the double-parked Star and Grand Princess ships, and a HAL ship. The Matanuska Alaskan Ferry is alongside, quite a bit larger than us. It loads its motorcycle group and passengers heading for their next port – a wonderful way to see the Inside Passage. This small town of 700 is overwhelmed with up to 12,000 passengers a day and the trains have been extended to lug them all up the pass, a massive effort not unlike the original sour doughs in the 1898.

Train to White Horse Pass

Train to White Horse Pass

After a short drive thru town in period automobiles and regalia, we board the train. Because we return by bus, we are required to have our passports. Our long train (12 cars of at least 50 people each, at least four more similar trains every few miles behind us) winds slowly up the White Horse Pass between 4000-7000′ rounded walls of granite, snowfields and hanging glaciers, views of old bridges and shacks, distant views down the valley of the ships in Skagway’s port, waterfalls filling silt-filled rivers, thru Canadian and US passport controls, past two bears and some rarely seen caribou into Frasier British Columbia. Then, immediately, we board a bus for the return trip along the Klondike Highway.

Skagway is a cruise ship company town. Big ships only dock in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway where their presence has radically altered these towns. Bringing in up to 2500 passengers each (with the first days of the week as the busiest with 4-5 ships docked), the cruise companies have maximized their dollar by building shops (at least 85% of which are jewelry stores) and importing workers, many run by foreigners who operate in summer then close up and move to their sister shop in the Caribbean or other winter port. All is seasonal and little money benefits the communities. In fact, just about every local I have met will point out the shops owned and operated by locals. Having never experienced a devastating fire, Skagway is picturesque but not quiet. Over a million passengers visit these ports within four months. For a town like Skagway, today brings more than 1000 cruisers for every resident. It’s few streets loose their charm. Walking back to the port, our ship is dwarfed by the behemoths docked beside her.

We are happy to leave Skagway for the smaller, quieter port of Haines on the Lynn Canal and site of the pre-WWI Ft. Seward. We arrived with a bang – literally. Watching what seemed a too-fast approach to the dock, we scraped along the side leaving the impression we were not stopping, AKA the Forest Gump docking. Told to brace ourselves, we missed the huge steel pier post before coming to a stop just beyond. No harm seems to have occurred but while here I suppose they are checking the engines and thrusters or firing the engineer. No word from crew as to what occurred, mums the word.

In Haines, we walked around the historic Ft. Seward for two hours, about 45 minutes too long. Not a whole lot here but the views down the channel are fantastic. Weather is shirt-sleeve warm as we learn all about this area. Everyone very talkative leading me to believe they don’t get out much. The grounds of the old army fort are privately owned and would be a great place to spend a summer with the other 1400 or so residents. After the tour, I walked “downtown” to the Hammer Museum for a display of hundreds of hammers – a variety I never knew existed.

Jagged snow-capped mountains and glassy smooth waters

Jagged snow-capped mountains and glassy smooth waters

Evening finds us sailing on glassy-smooth waters with snow-capped mountains on either side and the occasional lighthouse sliding past our bow. Miles and miles we sail with no change in ragged saw-toothed mountains in the distance (because peaks were above the glaciers) with gentler rounded mountains scraped by glacier movement in the foreground. Narrow passages lead off into unknown fjords and bays, countless mysterious islands drift by in the misty distance, and numerous glaciers and ice fields hang from those sharp-edged peaks. No wildlife seen, including the 46 passengers on the ship.

Sunset 10:20

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