Unbelievable beauty, value

Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau, Alaska. An all-inclusive weeklong sail through the Inside Passage features a shining waterscape, glaciers, bald eagles, a good chance of whales - and popular pricing.
Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau, Alaska. An all-inclusive weeklong sail through the Inside Passage features a shining waterscape, glaciers, bald eagles, a good chance of whales - and popular pricing. (SUSAN KERSHMAN)
Posted: March 11, 2012

SAILING THROUGH ALASKA'S INSIDE PASSAGE - Yes, you can go salmon fishing on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, or live in a bare-bones cabin in the wilds with no electricity or running water, or hike the historic Crow Pass Trail east of Anchorage. I know you can do all these things because I read about them over the last year in this very section.

I decided to do none of them. My first experience with Alaska is the most common one - a cruise. And a cruise in Alaska means sailing along the coast and weaving through the islands - a waterway route called the Inside Passage, with port stops in places including Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway, and Icy Strait Point.

It offers passengers a glistening waterscape, the promise of spotting whales and bald eagles, ports of call with active land trips - and glaciers. Plenty of glaciers.

At my last look, 11 major cruise lines will be among those sailing 449 voyages on this Alaskan route during the tourism season here, mostly from late April through September. The rest of the year, Alaska is primarily for Alaskans; the glaciers are being retopped by snow and the weather in the state's inhabitable places can be severe. In fact, while Philadelphians and others in the East were virtually basking in a moderate, even warm, winter, some Alaskans were facing the worst snows in memory.

But, ah, those warmer months - Alaska opens its easygoing arms to tourism, its second-largest industry, after seafood purveyance. Depending on whose figures you like - the state's, the cruise industry's, numbers from different tourism councils - in the last few years Alaska has attracted just over a million tourists annually, or maybe 1.5 million. By all accounts, though, no matter whose figures you look up, the majority of travelers see the state by cruising the Inside Passage: between 56 and 65 percent, different stats show. About 890,000 of them are expected to go aboard starting a few weeks from now.

Many of those who have the time and money will extend their cruises at either end with land trips. I did not. In fact, I went with my wife to Alaska in July on what was a last-minute whim, a trip that began as her weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia, so she could fulfill a promise made decades ago to take a school friend, a Vancouver resident, to a landmark birthday dinner. I'm a big fan of Vancouver, one of North America's greenest, most attractive cities. "Gee," I said. "I'll come, too."

A few days before we left, my wife, Susan, said, "I'd like to see Alaska. We've never been there. We'll already be in Vancouver."

"Gee," I said. "I'll come, too." Which is the way, of course, travel among working people often happens: idea, desire, saying yes, seeing if you can take the time off from work, and seeing if you have the money.

We did, and because we would cruise, the options were many. We chose a stateroom with a porthole that was supposed to have an obstructed view but luckily did not, on the Holland America Line's Statendam, a ship with a level of charm and elegance we had no right to expect at a base price of about $750 a person for a seven-day sailing.

By the time we added taxes, tips, and an hour-long transfer from the end of the trip to the Anchorage airport, where we'd fly back to Philly, we were looking at about $915 a person - good value for what is essentially an all-inclusive week, without figuring in any land tours.

We were sprawled out on chaises along with about 50 other passengers as we sailed alongside British Columbia on our way to Alaska, a 1,503-mile journey. I momentarily left the ship's deck, and when I returned, people were sitting straight up and oohing and aahing.

"Something just jumped from the water," Susan said, and I had a cartoon vision of a guy going inside from time to time, and every time he did, whales would jump up and kiss a swarm of bald eagles, sharks would emerge in a conga line, and flying Alaskan bears would cheer them on - until the second the guy opened the door to go back on deck.

This actually happened - not the anthropomorphized creatures, but me missing some highlights by, well, relaxing. What's a person to do in midsummer, when an Alaskan serenity aboard a ship, unknown at home, is like an invisible, enveloping cushion?

The biggest disappointment came when Susan and I decided to nap after excellent U.S. park rangers, on board to verbally guide our sailing through the magnificence of Glacier Bay National Park, gave us an estimated time the ship would sail by pods of whales. We took a nap and awoke to catch sight of them, but the creatures had come early. Still, we saw distant sprays from whales just under the surface, and a couple of tails. (Tip: Whales in mid-ocean do not obey listed curtain times.)

Ships, of course, leave global footprints - or marine watermarks, more to the point - and both Alaska and the cruise industry have done much work to minimize them. Global warming is enough of a worry for Alaska, with or without cruise ships; we saw glaciers calving, which means pieces falling off, several times - a spectacular sight with a hollow booming noise to match, and a normal process. But it is happening too often, and the magnificent, slowly moving highways of ice are receding at a pace too fast for their own long-term survival.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of the Holland America cruise was the way in which guides and the accompanying rangers waged a subtle, effective information campaign about atmospheric change, which Alaskans see firsthand. It's one thing to read and hear this in a living room in Philadelphia; it's quite another to hear it while you are sailing in Glacier Bay National Park, amid snowcapped mountains that look like a dream, with little icebergs floating by as a pair of bald eagles look back at you from one of them.

Our port stops in Ketchikan (we went on our own to Totem Bight, a state totem-pole preserve, and took public transportation there) and Juneau (our first glacier, the Mendenhall, and the fascinating Macaulay salmon hatchery, which fish were swimming upstream to reach) were not too short or long.

The day we did book a land excursion, at Skagway, was special because the trip was rarefied and remote. The port at Skagway, a Wild Westy town known for its scenic ride on an old railroad line - a trip we passed up - is a good take-off point for wilderness touring.

A bus carried us to a catamaran, which sailed perhaps 25 of us down what seemed an untouched fjord. (Of course it was not, but Alaska has had great success in keeping things pristine despite the odds.) The catamaran pulled up after about 45 minutes at an island called Glacier Point. We disembarked and set out on a short walk through the brush and forest to another side of the island. There, we boarded canoes that each held about 10 people.

The canoes were motorized, but the guides who joined us on the island used the motors as little as possible. Mostly, we paddled. A glacier, the Davidson Glacier, eventually came into view.

Mottled with Windex-blue ice - ice so heavily compressed it fully absorbs every color but blue - the glacier sat before us like a creature from another planet, a miles-wide, rising frozen slope. We felt the temperature drop from normal low-60s Alaskan summer weather, as we paddled closer. By the time we were about 40 feet away from the glacier's face - 25 minutes - it was probably in the mid-40s.

We looked at the glacier's crags, examined its landslides, watched the birds that flew nearby. We pulled our paddles from the icy water and just sat, mesmerized. An enormous chunk of ice and snow - it's impossible to know real dimensions when you are in the midst of something so alien - began falling from the glacier into the fjord, in front of us.

A crisp crunching sound shattered the air, then a boom erupted around us and moved down the fjord. The wake shook us gently. Bits of the fallen ice began to float by. The rich air became still once again and the glacier sported its slightly new facade. For seconds, we were one with the planet.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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