Cruising the Inside Passage of the ‘Last Frontier’ of Alaska

Angela Dansby

For my mother’s milestone birthday in June 2017, my family went on a Princess cruise through southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, a network of waterways, glaciers and coastal towns. Normally, the great outdoors wasn’t her “cup of tea,” but she was curious about the 49th U.S. state. So too were my father, sister Melanie, brother-in-law Sean and cousin Dane. I had already been to Alaska but not by water. In fact, it was my first time ever on a large cruise ship (and perhaps last given the pandemic).

Alaska was acquired by the United States in 1867 as “Seward’s Folly” because U.S. Secretary of State William Seward arranged to purchase it from Russia. The state was admitted to the union in 1959.

Shaped by massive glaciers millions of years ago, the Inside Passage is an adventurer’s and nature lover’s paradise with bald eagles in the air and sea lions, porpoises and whales in the sea. You can play in fjords and forests, admire mountains and glaciers, and see it all from above in a sea plane or helicopter. (Check, check, check, we did everything except my parents who stayed on the ground.) Alaska has more than 6,600 miles of coastline (beachfront) and nearly 34,000 miles of shoreline (where water and land meet). We saw a significant amount of both en route from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to Anchorage (Whittier Harbor), passing through the coastal towns of Ketchikan, Juneau (the state’s capitol) and Skagway.

Dane and I got an aerial view of the shoreline by sea plane. Soaring over “The Last Frontier” (Alaska is derived from the Aleut word “Aleyska,” meaning “great land”) from about 2,000 feet in the air, we saw lush green landscape, lakes, channels, islands, inlets and snow-capped mountains. The smooth-flying memory is frozen in time.

“Awesome!” Dane exclaimed when he was in the co-pilot seat. (This is a word he doesn’t say easily. The last time I heard it was when dolphins flanked us while paddle-boarding in Florida.)

We could see every crack and crevice in the mountains and frozen terrain as well as moving water below. In dramatic moments, ice would crash and splash into the water. Imagine what would happen during an earthquake! Shockingly, three of the 10 strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the world have occurred in Alaska.

Our early morning take-off was in Rudyerd Bay near the Inside Passage’s southernmost town of Ketchikan, which I dubbed “catch me if you can.” This former Gold Rush town, founded in 1900, is now an artist’s colony supported by cedar and salmon industries. Its earliest inhabitants—the people of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian nations – were displaced by non-native settlers, who established fish canneries. The legacy of the native Americans remains in brightly painted totem poles. The area around Ketchikan has the world’s largest collection.

From Ketchikan harbor, my family and I went on a small boat tour to observe American bald eagles in their natural habitat, which are no longer endangered thanks to protective laws. In fact, eagles outnumber people there today.

Also near Ketchikan is Misty Fjords National Monument and more than 2 million acres of wilderness. Granite cliffs there were carved by glaciers. This area is only accessible by plane or boat, so it was a good excuse to ride in a sea plane again.

We flew to Windfall Island in the Misty Fjords to go kayaking, where we had a windfall wildlife sighting: a family of brown bears! We saw a male on the coastline and then his family with cubs inland. I put my iPhone camera in front of a telescope on a tripod to get photos and videos. For years, I had been chasing bears but never saw them on foot until this trip. Finally, I could “grin to bear it.” 😉

After breathtaking moments of exhilaration observing these wild creatures, Mel, Sean, Dane and I made like seals and gracefully kayaked through the Misty Fjords in glass-like, pure water.

From Skagway, us four took to the air again, but this time, by helicopter. We zipped to the top of a glacier – going from temperate, green landscape to frigid, icy tundra – where we were greeted by an adorable team of Alaskan huskies. Each had his own “igloo.” Some puppies were among them and Mel, Sean and I fought over holding one.

“I want to take him home with us,” Sean declared, snuggling the pup in his arms in a “nobody try to pull him away from me” manner.

The adult dogs were corralled to take us on a sled ride, releasing some of their boundless energy. We traversed across the open glacier as if on another planet.

In the afternoon, my whole family took White Pass Railroad from Skagway through Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, equipped with “emergency tools” of a saw, sledgehammer and ax! We “rushed” past tree-laden mountains and green landscape in our rust-colored locomotive to strike-out with gold. While we didn’t see any, around $250 million worth was mined from the region between 1896 – when George Carmack discovered gold while salmon fishing in the Klondike River – to 1966, when large-scale mining stopped. The train tracks were built over harrowing terrain 100 years ago to transport miners to the Yukon in search of the precious metal, but no individual got as much as Carmack, who left with a fortune at that time of $1 million. Today, around 200 small gold mines still operate in the region. 

Completing our Gold Rush time warp, we toured around Skagway’s Historic District, which features 20 refurbished, Gold Rush-era buildings. They mark the life of gold-digging stampeders more than a century ago.

In great contrast to this quasi-civilized part of Alaska, we cruised on the ship further north to observe glaciers in College Fjord of Prince William Sound and in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which – as its name suggests – is lined with spectacular shoreline glaciers. We got up early to observe them from a deck to catch them, albeit in our bathrobes. (Thankfully, Mel and Sean’s deck was hidden at the back of the boat.) This bay was the grand finale of the trip. Its 3 million+ acres of beauty are part of a 25-million-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the world’s largest protected wilderness areas. Not only does Glacier Bay have icy behemoths and fjords, but also mountains and temperate rainforest. It’s truly a natural wonder.  

Princess cruise line is known as the best in the industry for Alaska tours and it did not disappoint our “queen mother.” It showcases America’s Last Frontier in natural glory that begs “catch me if you can!”

As well, you should catch it while you can.

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Unlike Australia, Antarctica is only a continent, not also a country. That’s because it does not have sovereignty, a government, a political system, an army or a permanent population.