Alaska ports of call
Almost one million people cruise Alaska’s southeast coast every year. The
season runs from the second week of May to the third week of September. Cruises
through the Inside Passage are generally round trips from Vancouver or Seattle;
on these you’ll see little of the interior. Gulf of Alaska cruises travel one
way between Seward or Whittier (the cruise ports for Anchorage) and Vancouver or
Seattle; these also include the Inside Passage. The majority of cruises take
visitors to the historic port towns of Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan.
Here’s what you’ll experience in these ports of call.
Sitka was established by Russian colonists
[AGP1]and many remnants of that period remain. The most prominent relic is the
onion-domed St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which dominates the
town’s skyline. Learn more about the town’s Russian past with a visit to the
Russian Bishop’s House, which is operated by the National Park Service; it
offers excellent displays and insight into that era.
Just a short walk from town is the Sitka National Historic Park, a beautiful
wooded area that was the site of the final battle between the native Tlingits
and the Russians. The visitor’s center offers many exhibits and multimedia
presentations. The highlight of the park is its many colorful totem poles, one
of the best collections in the state. The Inside Passage is noted for its
rainforests, and [AGP2]this park has one of the best. A walk along the paths
through the dense and enormous foliage is humbling, yet the fresh air is almost
intoxicating. It’s a strange feeling.
Across the street from the park is the Alaska
Raptor Center, the best place to get up-close and personal with the great
Bald Eagle. This all-volunteer center has become a national leader in raptor
rehabilitation and public education. Each year the center treats between 100 and
200 injured eagles, owls, hawks and falcons. Many birds are rehabilitated and
released; others, whose injuries are too severe to allow them to survive in the
wild, remain at the center or are sent off to zoos or other aviaries around the
country. Don’t miss “Sitka,” the center’s “educational bald eagle.”
Sitka was injured when she was hit by a car, causing a severe injury to her
right foot that required partial amputation. Her sprit wasn’t broken, however;
in fact, she has a lot of personality. Rock your head side to side and she’ll
Juneau was founded in 1880 following the discovery of gold. Its steep hills,
which cling to the sides of Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, gave it the nickname
“Little San Francisco.” Though it is Alaska’s capital, the only way you
can reach Juneau is by plane or ship; there are no roads into or out of town.
For a landlocked town it sure is busy, and most of the activity comes from
cruise ship passengers. Sadly, the new “gold rush” for many who visit here
is a mad dash to shop in one of the overly numerous souvenir shops that now
occupy many of the city’s historic wooden buildings, to visit one of the
old-time saloons, or to pan for gold in defunct mine tailings. Savvy visitors
make it past these places to look for the real soul of Juneau,
which offers wildlife, glaciers, flight-seeing, hiking, biking and paddling.
To get the lay of the land, take the Mount Roberts Tramway, which will whisk
you from sea level to 1,800 feet in less than five minutes. From the top, the
view over the city and out across Lynn Canal and Gastineau Channel is
spectacular. Thirteen miles outside the city lies another must- see: Mendenhall
Glacier, touted as the world’s only “drive-up” glacier.
For a real adventure, take a float plane tour to Taku Lodge; from the air
you’ll see the shimmering expanses of the Juneau Ice Field. Other great
options include whale watching and tours of Tracy Arm Fjord, which is home to
the Sawyer Glaciers. During a Tracy Arm excursion, I saw many bears eating fish
along the shore, mountain goats with their newborn kids teetering along the
cliffs, and eagles flying around the icebergs. The highlight is seeing and
hearing huge chunks of glacier crashing into the sea. You’ll be amazed at how
blue the ice looks.
The characters from the HBO series “Deadwood” would feel right at home in
Skagway. Wooden walkways and original
timber houses make the town a living museum of Klondike Gold Rush days. Its
bordellos and saloons once hosted such colorful customers as Guzzling Gertie,
Gum Boots Kitty and gang boss Soapy Smith, the town’s worst villain. The spot
where Smith died in a gun duel is routinely pointed out during tours of the
town. Today, Skagway’s year-round population is about 750 and there are only a
few saloons; interestingly, the town employs six policemen.
Most visitors to Skagway opt to take one of the world’s greatest train
rides, aboard the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which began
service in 1900. The railroad parallels the old trail that the miners trekked to
the goldfields. The trail is so dangerous that hikers are forbidden to use it;
one portion, called “Dead Horse Gulch,” marks the final resting place of
some 3,000 pack animals. Leaving Skagway at the four-mile point, the railroad
begins its steep climb at 260 feet per minute from sea level to 2,865 feet. From
the train, which still uses many of the original carriages, you’ll see scenery
that’s vast and absolutely wild.
Salmon and hookers together — who knew? In the 1920s Ketchikan
was known as “one of the wickedest dens of the Pacific.” The colorful wooden
cottages and alleys of Creek Street were once home to the town’s famous
red-light district. Today, most of the buildings house restaurants, souvenir
shops and art galleries. For a brush with the past, stop by Dolly’s House,
where the sign says, “If you can’t find your husband, he’s in here.”
Pretend madams in full regalia will give you a legal tour of this well-preserved
Ketchikan has the largest collection of Tlingit totem poles in the world, and
they can be seen at three sites: Totem Bight State Park, which re-creates the
setting of a traditional native village; Saxman Village, an active Tlingit
community; and the Totem Heritage Center, home to the oldest totem poles in
Alaska, some dating back more than 150 years. Across the creek from the Heritage
Center is Deer Mountain Hatchery and Eagle Center, where thousands of salmon and
trout are raised each year. In the summer months, the hatchery’s holding tanks
are full of fish in various stages of development. Also on display are two
injured female bald eagles who like to show off their eight-foot wing spans when
visitors stop by their enclosure.
A flight-seeing excursion or boat trip to Misty Fjords National Monument is
the big thing to do in Ketchikan. Encompassing an area of more than two million
acres, this protected wilderness area has waterfalls, pristine lakes, snowcapped
mountains, and granite cliffs that drop thousands of feet into the sea. It’s a
If you’re up for something completely different, try getting in touch with
your inner Tarzan. Alaska
Canopy Adventures allows you to zip across Ketchikan’s rainforest 135 feet
above the ground. There are seven zip-lines and 4,500 feet of cable strung
across spruce, hemlock and cedar trees; distances between platforms range from
175 feet to 850 feet. There are also three rope bridges to navigate. Those
fearless enough to look down might catch sight of a bear; glance upward and you
might get a bird’s-eye view of a bald eagle.
Breathtaking scenery, gleaming glaciers, abundant wildlife and interesting
native culture — you’ll never have a better chance to experience adventure
and true wilderness than in Alaska.
June 26, 2006