"...Whether on foot, on snowshoes or by sled, into the summer hills and their late freezing shadows -- a high blaze, a runner track in the snow would show where I had gone. Let the rest of mankind find me if it could." -- John Haines, Alaska's Poet Laureate
We've all shared Haines' longing to lose ourselves in pristine wilderness and it's hard to imagine a better place to do this than Alaska. With its glaciers and icebergs, old-growth rain forests, and salmon-loving bears, the 49th state remains one of the world's purest wilderness areas. Unfortunately, Southeast Alaska Cruises are too popular for their own good, especially for cruise travelers.
On any given day between May and September, 3,000 to 10,000 passengers are deposited in towns of 2,000 to 30,000 people. What's amazing is that Alaska's overcrowding is not actually a new development! Writing about his trip to Alaska in 1890, Naturalist John Muir wrote that "The ships were jammed and mobbed, high prices paid for shabby stuff manufactured expressly for the tourist trade."
As our cruise approached, I started reading Southeast Alaska travel guides and surfing the Internet. I found the sheer number of ship-sponsored shore excursions dizzying, literally. Zip line rain forest canopy tours, glacier helicopter adventures and rock climbing felt packaged and touristy.
Excursions with the greatest appeal like bird watching at St. Lazaria Island, visiting mom and pup harbor seals at Leconte Bay, and kayaking in Misty Fjords National Monument were either physically out of range of our ports or required longer stays. We were also a month too early for bears. According to Dee Galla, director at the Anan Creek Wildlife Viewing Area in Wrangell, bear viewing season gets going at the end of June when the salmon start running in local streams.
Things improved when I found Alaska's Inside Passage Wildlife Viewing Guide ($5.95), a new paperback by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, packed with wildlife viewing tips and fascinating information on animals and habitats. Karla Hart, the ADF&G's watchable wildlife program coordinator and one of the guide's editors, enthusiastically shared her Juneau favorites: the "must stop" Mendenhall Glacier, Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, an evening ride up the Mount Roberts Tram to catch a glimpse of a black bear, scanning the mountain in back of Juneau for mountain goats and bears with binoculars, and looking for surf scoters in the Gastineau Channel.
The Juneau Parks and Recreation Department offers volunteer-led hikes on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the Audubon Society has nature and bird walks. Unfortunately, none of the walks matched Mercury's schedule and I continued searching for a trip. After e-mails and phone calls to Celebrity Cruises, I got information on ship-sponsored shore excursions with a maximum of 10 guests. Of these, a "Fly-Out Fly Fishing" trip to a remote part of the Tongass National Forest sounded like the best match.
After much trial and error, I'm happy to share our advice. Start by reading about Southeast Alaska. This helped us figure out what we wanted to do -- and made our experience richer. From there, consult Cruise Critic's message board for extraordinary shore excursions. If fellow passengers mention the name of a particularly outstanding guide, jot it down so you can request that person. Then check out your cruise line's shore excursions and note those you find irresistible. Ask your cruise line the size of the excursions on your list (this is all about crowd control).
In early May, we set out to see if it's possible to lose the crowds and experience authentic Alaska on a big cruise ship trip. We joined 1,869 passengers on Celebrity Mercury for a seven-day trip from Vancouver with stops at the big three: Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. Here's how we managed to get lost in the wilderness.
Alaska's state capital is incredibly scenic -- framed by 3,000 plus foot mountain peaks and dozens of glaciers. We took Karla Hart's advice and walked from the cruise ship dock next door to the Mount Roberts Tram terminal. As the tram climbed quickly, we took in the fantastic views below of Douglas Island and the Gastineau Channel. We learned from the tram operator that a bear was sighted just 15 minutes earlier foraging on the snowy mountainside.
At the summit, a young Tlingit woman welcomed us to the Chilkat Theatre and tried to teach us phrases like "Waa sa iyatee?" (how are you?) and "gunalcheesh" (thank you), which sounded a lot like cottage cheese. I wondered why I was struggling to pronounce these simple words until we learned that Tlingit is a complex tone language like Chinese with two dozens sounds not found in English and four sounds found in no other language on earth. Thus humbled, we watched a documentary on the Tlingits, who along with the Tshimshian, Nisga'a and Haida peoples first inhabited Southeastern Alaska.
From there, the tram whisked Jack and me back down to the cruise dock where we met Bear Creek Outfitters and four fellow anglers from England, Hawaii and San Diego. I was relieved to learn that the one other woman in our group is also a non-fisherman. At Bear Creek's office, an eight-mile ride north at the Juneau airport, we donned olive green waders and waterproof jackets, and plunked down $20 for one-day fishing licenses.
In a tiny float plane over the Mendenhall Valley, we ogled Juneau Icefield, a massive area of ice and snow that's bigger than Rhode Island. My father, a retired engineer, sat beside the pilot in the cockpit and studied the navigation equipment. We headed northward over Admiralty Island, home of North America's largest concentration of brown bears before landing softly in the water by the beach at Chilkat Peninsula, part of the Tongass National Forest.
Our young guides, Matt and Zach, looked like they stepped out of an Orvis catalogue. I was surprised to see Matt loading slugs into a 12 gauge shotgun -- a "precaution" the native Minnesotan has never had to use. The bears were just waking up from their hibernation, coming down to the beach to jump start their digestive systems with fiber-rich roots. Zach, a native of Juneau, is a college baseball player who's studying business so he can be his own boss. He reminded me of my 19-year-old son.
Matt and Zach demonstrated casting on the beach, and it soon became clear that the "quiet sport" is more about patience and finesse than muscle. Though delicious with firm pink flesh, the Dolly Varden will live to see another day -- we practiced catch and release. Soon we were standing in Teardrop Creek, fly rods in hand, practicing casting. One by one, we waded out to our own areas.
It was startlingly beautiful. After awhile, I was caught up (no pun intended) in the rhythmic motion of my rod and the fact that I was standing hip deep in 43 degree water. I looked over at my dad who was totally absorbed, as were the other anglers. For the next couple of hours, we fished, the silence interrupted only by the occasional excitement of a catch.
Dolly Varden are abundant in Southeast Alaska, but my fuzzy pink fly wasn't fooling any of these fish. I thought about changing my fly, but decided that probably wouldn't help. I started noticing the snow-covered mountains in the distance and tuning into the songs of birds. From a safe distance, a curious sea lion popped its head out of the water and watched us. I secretly wished a bear or moose would emerge from the forest.
No such luck. Instead, Matt broke out smoked salmon, bagels and a thermos of coffee. As dusk arrived, the air and water temperatures dropped and I was grateful for the layers of gear. I tried to imagine this remote spot in winter with the bears hibernating and an occasional human visitor snowboarding through powder.
The float plane was quite late picking us up and our group grew cold and testy waiting on the beach. Though I wasn't in a big rush to return to civilization, I started fantasizing about a warm shower and hoping for something besides seafood on the dinner menu.
Best Resources: During bear season, Alaska Mountain Guides offers a bear viewing day trip from Juneau to Admiralty Island. To check hike schedules, consult juneau.org or juneau-audubon-society.org. For the line on fly fishing, visit Bear Creek Outfitters.
Jack and I met our Packer Expedition guides Cory and Laura at the end of the cruise wharf. They led us through Skagway's historic district -- dozens of restored gold rush era buildings housing souvenir shops, restaurants, saloons and galleries. We stopped briefly at the National Park Service Gold Rush Museum to learn about the 1896 Yukon gold rush, when thousands of fortune seekers arrived at the rough-and-tumble towns of Skagway and Dyea.
The shorter, steeper Chiloot Trail, an old Native route out of Dyea, presented avalanches and bitter cold. Skagway's more popular White Pass Trail (also known as Dead Horse Trail) came with the exploits of lawless "Soapy" Smith. Either way, the Canadian government required each person to lug a year's worth of supplies -- nearly a "ton of goods" -- over 500 miles including 400 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon and 125 pounds of beans.
From the museum, we boarded a parlor car on the historic narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Laura helped us into waterproof pants, jackets, boots and gators, and equipped us with fanny packs with water bottles, peanuts and chocolate. Cory's backpack was filled with a first aid kit, socks, bug spray, bear spray, a Birds of North America guide and extra snacks.
We met Elizabeth Ruff, the railway's first woman conductor who also has the distinction of being one of the last people to be born in Skagway (it's illegal to give birth in this small town due to a lack of obstetric services). Along the very scenic way, Cory described the building of the railroad, a civil engineering marvel built in just 26 months. At mile 5.8, we hopped off the train into a sunny white wonderland, the start of the Denver Glacier trail.
I knew we were in for something truly special when the first thing Cory did was teach Jack and I three bird calls. Donning snow shoes, we traipsed after Cory through a vast expanse of snow. After just a short distance from the tracks, we were surrounded by a silent world of temperate rain forest. At a large stand of centuries-old trees, Cory taught us to distinguish a fir tree (silver bark and soft needles) from a Sitka spruce (flaky reddish bark and spiky needles). He pointed out moose poop and that of Alaska's state bird, the ptarmigan, also known as the snow chicken. He introduced us to American Dippers who nest under waterfalls and described how moose eat willow bark to relieve arthritis.
I was starting to get the hang of snow shoeing when it was time to head back to the tracks. During the ride back to town, we enjoyed a delicious salmon pate and local brew while Cory described Southeast Alaska's glaciers -- the most active on the planet -- and the escapades of Skagway's infamous "Soapy" Smith.
Back at the depot, we strolled over to the Sweet Tooth Cafe to meet Buckwheat Donahue, head of Skagway's visitor bureau. Over lunch, the Colorado transplant also captivated us with his stories -- thousands of trumpeter swans and blue herons at Marsh Lake, 50 days of constant sun during summer, and his favorite season, Northern Lights. We learned that President William G. Harding died shortly after eating at the Arctic Brotherhood, the much photographed turn-of-the-century driftwood building that's now Buckwheat's office.
Surprisingly, a couple of blocks off the main tourist area, we completely lost the cruise crowds. Also, Skagway turns out to be a hiking haven, with alpine lakes, birds, and pine and spruce forests. The Skagway Trail Map shows the Dewey Lake Trail System with Lower Dewey Lake (one hour), Upper Reid Falls (three hours), Sturgill's Landing (four hours) and Upper Dewey Lake (all day). Another trail system south of Skagway's airport terminal includes Yakutania Point along the harbor (one hour) and secluded Smuggler's Cove (two hours).
Skagway's best kept secret is Dyea, 10 miles west. When the railroad laid its tracks in Skagway, Dyea became a ghost town. Today, the area is a haven for hiking, biking and birding. Dyea Flats, at the estuary where the Taiya River meets Taiya Inlet, has a May eulachon or "hooligan" run that attracts harbor seals, Steller sea lions and bald eagles (Tlingits used these small, slimy eulachon fish for lamps). By summer, wild irises bloom in the nearby marshes and meadows.
Skagway is just 22 blocks long and four blocks wide, but somehow I knew we'd be back.
Best Resources: Packer Expeditions offers extraordinary snow shoeing and heli-hiking day trips (, 907-983-2544). If you want to explore on your own, print the excellent trail map plus a walking tour brochure of Skagway at skagway.com. For gold rush history and information on free ranger-led walks of Skagway's Historic District and Dyea Town Site, visit the U.S. National Park Service Web site.
From the wraparound windows in Mercury's observation lounge, we took in the scenery near Ketchikan and listened to narration by onboard naturalist Brent Nixon. Jack and I met Kim from Southeast Sea Kayaks on the cruise ship dock. I was thrilled to learn we were joining just one other couple -- avid kayakers from Tampa visiting Alaska independently. The four of us donned waterproof jackets and life preservers, and boarded a waiting speedboat driven by Aussie Gillian Edwards. During an exhilarating 20-minute high-speed ride through the Tongass Narrows, Gillian gave us a slice of life in Ketchikan.
"You have to laugh or you might cry about it," she said of the city's controversial bridge proposal and local politics in general. She affectionately described the "social event of the summer" -- the annual Salmon Derby during which some one hundred boats compete for the biggest fish and $40,000. "There are no friends on Derby days," she joked.
At secluded Orcas Cove, we transferred to the larger Sea Spree, which the company's co-owner, Greg Thomas, anchors here each day. While we get briefed by our kayak guide Sonja, Gillian and Greg's towheaded 1-year-old twin sons happily entertained each other in a playpen. Jack and I climbed into the tandem kayak and followed Sonja, weaving our way along the serene waters around several lush vegetated islands.
It wasn't long before we stopped paddling. Soaring above us were at least a dozen bald eagles. For a glorious few minutes we watched the birds in flight. I summoned all the interesting trivia I could remember from naturalist Brent Nixon's eagle talk. I pointed out to Jack the young eagles with mottled feathers (their classic white head and tail feathers appear around age 4). Lifelong mates, these birds had wintered apart and were now reuniting and wooing, building nests in their favorite tree, the Sitka spruce.
We waited for the last eagle to disappear before resuming. Sonya pointed out Annette Island, a native reservation, as well as Ice House Cove and Cynthia Island. A curious harbor seal popped up and checked us out. The trip back to Orcas Cove was a completely different experience. We found ourselves paddling furiously against the wind in choppy whitecaps. For a while, we didn't seem to be making much progress and I couldn't stop laughing -- which didn't help. Synchronizing our strokes, we began moving forward against the waves.
Safely back aboard the Sea Spree, we sat down in the galley for conversation over an elegant spread of smoked salmon, capers, cream cheese, red onion and crackers. Greg explained that he left Sydney 13 years ago to kayak in Alaska and never went back. He found Ketchikan more open to outsiders than other places in Alaska. He was justifiably proud of two recent accomplishments -- his twin sons and helping researchers from British Columbia identify missing orcas.
During the ride back, I asked Gillian for her Ketchikan favorites. Perseverance Lake starts out steeply, she said, but rewards hikers with a mini-Misty Fjords experience. "The Hole in the Wall" six miles south of town was her pick for drinks and great views. Back in town, with an about an hour remaining before Mercury lifted anchor, our kayaking companions invited us for a drive to a popular bear-watching spot south of town. The bears weren't cooperating, but on the way back, we spotted a tall plume of spray in the water.
The four of us hopped out of the car in time to see a humpback dive right offshore. The sky was a pastel wash of pinks and lavenders and the silver water was smooth and still. For several moments, we held our breaths, waiting for the solitary whale to exhale.
Best Resources: I came upon Southeast Sea Kayaks' Web site advertising trips for "independently spirited travelers." I confirmed my positive hunch on Cruise Critic's message board, where a family of four enjoyed their Southeast Sea Kayaks trip so much, they're returning this summer (800-287-1607).
--Image of kayaking in Ketchikan appears courtesy of Southeast Sea Kayaks; images of snowshoeing outside Skagway and fly fishing in Juneau appear courtesy of Susan Jaques.