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Cruise Feature Article
Cruising the Inside Passage

Scenery & Wildlife Abound

by Alan Walker

Cruising Alaska and Canada's Inside Passage is a fascinating experience, and unlike any other cruising experience in the world except possibly cruising the Norwegian fjords. Unlike the Norwegian fjords, the Alaska panhandle is at much the same latitude as Central Europe and, additionally, the Alaska coast is warmed by the Kuroshio (Japanese current), and wildlife is abundant. The narrow straits of the Inside Passage are bordered by high, tree-covered mountains, and there is rarely a time on the round-trip cruise from Vancouver when you can't see some interesting landmark, or possibly some whales, seals or bald eagles. Cruise ships have been sailing through the Inside Passage and among its thousand islands from as far back as 1888.

Galaxy at Hubbard Glacier
Galaxy at Hubbard Glacier - photo taken by Doug Hembroff from the Island Princess

The "Inside Passage"

So, what does the Inside Passage mean exactly? First of all, it doesn't mean an "inland passage" as novices are occasionally wont to say. The Inside Passage means that you can cruise all of the way from Vancouver or Seattle in the south, to Skagway or Glacier Bay in the north, more than a thousand miles as the crow flies (or the bald eagle flies), and almost always be protected from the possible big waves of the Pacific Ocean by having off-shore islands to protect you.

Alaska Cruising Choices

Your cruising choices for the Inside Passage include the round-trip from Vancouver, a one way trip from Vancouver to Anchorage (Seward), or the reverse trip from Anchorage to Vancouver. The one-way cruises tend to be called "Gulf of Alaska" cruises because they traverse the Gulf after exiting the Inside Passage (or after leaving Seward on the reverse itinerary). Occasionally there are longer cruises to the Alaska area from places like San Francisco.

Starting in Vancouver

Let's assume that you start your cruise in Vancouver. When you board your cruise ship in Vancouver's harbour, you will find the waters of Burrard Inlet as still as a mill pond. If you look at a good map (and a good map is essential to the enjoyment of the Inside Passage cruise) you will find that Vancouver is well protected from the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean. Giant Vancouver Island off the coast of Vancouver makes it necessary for ships approaching from the south or the west of British Columbia to navigate the long strait of Juan de Fuca (named after the original explorer in 1592) to get to either Seattle or to Vancouver. When you cruise out of Vancouver, you will have the protection of Vancouver Island from rough waters for the first 300 miles or so, and you will cruise among a myriad of small islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

As you cruise this narrow channel, you will find that the most evidence of civilization is on the port side, because the east coast of Vancouver Island is relatively flat land. By contrast, the mainland side is indented by numerous deep inlets, and no roads have been built in British Columbia from Vancouver directly north to its other west-coast ports, such as Prince Rupert. The latter port is almost on the Alaska border, but to reach it by road, you need to drive through the interior of British Columbia.

Seymour Narrows and Ripple Rock

Seymour Narrows Map(Click on the image to view a larger map of Seymour Narrows.) Although it will be dark before you have finished cruising the coast of Vancouver Island, you might keep your ear out for an announcement that you are passing through the Seymour Narrows. This is the narrowest part of the passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland (although it's Quadra Island on one side, not the mainland itself), and is approached by cruise ships with some care because of the 15 knot tides in this area.

Seymour Narrows is, however, less of an adventure than it was prior to April 1958. Before that time, Seymour Narrows was in fact two narrow channels, separated by a giant rock (called "Ripple Rock") which was just under water. Over the years since 1875, over 120 ships have been damaged or lost around Ripple Rock, and more than 114 lives have been lost. In 1958, the Canadian government blew up Ripple Rock, but not without some effort. A shaft was first sunk on the mainland side down 570 feet, and then a horizontal 2,400 feet tunnel was carved out under the channel, followed by vertical shaft rising 300 feet through the middle of Ripple Rock. When the explosives were detonated inside the vertical shaft, it created the greatest non-nuclear explosion in history (and was even shown live on TV across Canada and the U.S.). Although Ripple Rock is now history, ships still time their arrival through the Seymour Narrows to times of quiet tides. For this reason, on your trip either north or south through the Inside Passage, you might feel you are part of a parade, with other cruise ships both in front and behind you as they all await the right timing.

Queen Charlotte Sound

Once your ship has passed through the final passage between Vancouver Island and the mainland (called the "Queen Charlotte Strait") you will then be in the only real area of open water on the Inside Passage cruise. This area, called Queen Charlotte Sound, can have rough waters, but it is a relatively short passage before you are protected again by another large island, called "Graham Island", being a part of a British Columbia group of islands called the "Queen Charlotte Islands". Unlike Vancouver Island, these islands are quite a bit to the west, and you may not see them from the ship.

 

Entry to Alaska

A very small stretch of open water is passed as you enter into Alaska through the "Dixon Entrance", and you cross the unmarked border between British Columbia and Alaska. From here on in, you will always be in sight of land while in the Inside Passage.

Misty Fjords National Monument

Misty FjordsOn the eastern side as you enter the Dixon Entrance, you may be able to see part of the Misty Fjords National Monument, the second largest "wilderness area" in the United States. It is an unforgettable experience to take a float plane trip from Ketchikan over the Misty Fjords. Ketchikan is called the "First Port of Alaska" because of its location at the bottom end of the Alaska panhandle, although many cruises by-pass Ketchikan on the way up, and make it a port of call on the way back.

You really need your map once you are into Alaska waters and heading north for Juneau or Skagway. There are islands to the port, to the starboard, in front of you and behind you. This means not only will you always have something to see from one or both sides of the ship, but you are really well protected from any rough weather.

Juneau

Leaving Ketchikan behind, your cruise ship continues north, and some will occasionally stop at the small town of Wrangell to the east side of the passage. Most will likely continue cruising north to Juneau, Alaska's capital, the only American capital city which is inaccessible by road. In Juneau you can get your first taste of glaciers by taking a flight over the Taku Glacier area. Juneau also has one of the most accessible glaciers by road, being the Mendenhall Glacier, which you can see even better if you take the ship's excursion on Mendenhall Lake.

Skagway/Haines/Lynn Canal

Cruise ships usually continue north along the Lynn Canal which takes you to Skagway on the east side, and/or Haines on the west side. Although Lynn Canal appears quite wide until you get to the final section approaching Skagway, it's not quite as clear sailing as it appears. About a third of the way up the inlet is a reef called the "Vanderbilt". In 1918, the Canadian Pacific Passenger Liner, the Princess Sophia, was caught on this reef, but due to the rough seas, the captain decided it would be inadvisable to remove passengers from the stranded ship and another ship stood by to take aboard the passengers when the weather improved. During the evening when the wind increased, the Sophia slipped off the reef, filling immediately, and all 343 passengers and crew were drowned. A dog was the lone survivor. Don't worry, there's no chance that your modern cruise ship could have this same problem. Skagway is considered by many to be the epitome of Alaska, being the historic jumping-off point for the gold-seeking miners bound for the Klondike.

Glacier Bay

Cruise ships then backtrack down the Lynn Canal to get into the Icy Strait, and then Glacier Bay. Seeing the glaciers of Glacier Bay is usually the prime reason that anybody goes on an Alaska cruise. Glacier Bay is, however, a national park, and, in order to protect its fragile ecology, the National Parks Branch of the US Government restricts the number of cruise ships that may enter the bay at any time. When Captain George Vancouver sailed past Glacier Bay in 1794, it was little more than a dent in the shoreline, because a giant glacier completely filled most of what is now known as Glacier Bay.

Those cruise ships who are not allowed into Glacier Bay must travel further north for the same experience by visiting the Hubbard and Turner Glaciers in Yakutat Bay. While it is my view that those glaciers are just as interesting as anything you will see in Glacier Bay, the round trip to get there and back is some 500 nautical miles, and can result in your time in subsequent ports being reduced. There is also no "Inside Passage" to protect you and, if the weather is rough, you will certainly feel it in this area.

Sitka

Depending on your ship's itinerary, your ship may turn south from Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier and go through the unprotected waters of the Pacific down to Sitka. Sitka is definitely a fascinating port to visit, especially for its Russian history.

North to Alaska

If you are on a one way cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage, then after you pass Yakutat Bay, you will be in Alaska proper, not just its panhandle. There are no longer islands to protect you, and it's open water as you cross the Gulf of Alaska until you get to the port of Seward. Seward was the name of the Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. Seward is considered the port for Anchorage, and if you look at a map, you will see it's much easier for the cruise ships to bus passengers from Seward to Anchorage, or visa versa, rather than cruising to Anchorage itself which means cruising all the way around to the Cook Inlet, and possibly adding another full day to the length of the cruise. Depending on your cruise ship's itinerary, you may pause briefly on your way to Seward at College Fjord, itself a home to sixteen different glaciers.

Alaska Scenery

Maps

As I said at the beginning, there is no substitute for having a good map of the Alaska panhandle and the British Columbia coast to increase your enjoyment of cruising the Inside Passage.

A fun but small map is produced by Ronald M. Henry, whose address is given on the map as P.O. Box 140487, Anchorage, Alaska, 99514. I would not expect the map to be very expensive. A far more detailed map is produced by Coastal Cruise Tour Guides called "Alaska and Canada's Inside Passage Cruise Tour Guide." As well as a six foot fold-out map, the back of the map has summaries of all of the major Alaska ports, stories about shipwrecks, shipping, explorers, native culture, and even the British Columbia ports of Vancouver and Victoria. It is an excellent publication, and you can purchase it for approximately $10 in our SeaLetter Book Store. The included map of Seymour Narrows was scanned from this guide. If you don't love this map, write to me and give me heck (grin). (Many things on board your cruise ship, as you might expect, are more expensive than if you buy them ashore - my wife bought a cruise video of southeast Alaska on shore for $9.95, and the same tape on board the Galaxy was selling for $29.95.)

Books

For a funny book about Alaska and Alaskans, pick up "Mr. Whitekeys' Alaska Bizarre", which states on the cover "The Alaska Book the Department of Tourism Does NOT want you to read!". The cover price is $19.95, and if you want to buy it before your cruise, the publisher is Alaska Northwest Books, P.O. Box 10306, Portland, OR 97210, phone 800-452-3032.

The best book I've found about the Inside Passage ports of Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway and Juneau is Julianne Chase's "Inside Passage Walking Tours," published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle. The book, which is a handy 4 x 8 1/2 inch size and will fit in a back pocket or large purse, has excellent color pictures, fun anecdotes and detailed walking tour guides. The cover price is $14.95, but it sells in our SeaLetter Book Store for only $11.96.

Last Words

One of the fun things about cruising in Alaska in the summer is the length of the daylight hours - often until 11:00 at night, especially near the summer solstice on June 22. You will probably still see some scenery if you take a walk around deck before you go to bed.

Alaska's ports are all clean, safe, friendly and fun. We have separate reviews in SeaLetter of Alaska ports including Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Haines. These and more port reviews can be found in the Cruise Port Reviews Index.

The Inside Passage, and indeed the whole of the possible Alaska itineraries, are a special lifetime experience - don't miss them!

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Alan WalkerOriginally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.

To find all of Alan's SeaLetter columns, featured and humorous articles, and cruise and port reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Alan loves email, and can be reached at: Alan@sealetter.com.

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