Alaska's Inside Passage
June, 2002

Skagway, Alaska.  From this small town the overland journey to the Klondike Gold Fields began.  Cheryl really wanted to hike the famous Chilcoot Pass Trail.  This is the very steep trail taken by thousands of gold seekers in the early 1900's.  Even in late June the trail is packed with snow and ice and may require wading through spring run off.  The hike takes several days and is not recommended for novice hikers.  Maybe next year we'll go.  We could write for hours with stories we've learned about the Klondike Gold Rush.  If you go to Seattle there is a Klondike Gold Rush National Park Visitor Center in the downtown area near the waterfront.
As you can see, Skagway is a nice, quiet, little town.  But then, I took this picture at night; (at night? you may ask -- we were here on the Summer Solstice -- the longest day of the year and it didn't start getting dark until midnight.)  During daytime hours it looks more like Main Street, Disneyland.

While the town sleeps, three to eight cruise ships arrive.  In the morning as many as 8,000 people pack the streets, shops, and cafes.  The ships only spend one day in  port so by 7:00 p.m. all is quiet again. 

We camped two blocks from the center of town.  Thursday we walked into town for lunch and found most of the shops and several restaurants closed. They don't have weekends and weekdays in Skagway.  Instead they have "cruise ship" and "no cruise ship" days.  You can go into any store and ask to see their ship schedule - they all have one.  Then you can plan your activities for the less crowded days.

On June 21st the locals have a big party celebrating Summer Solstice.  There is a barbecue at the ball field with several bands that play well into the the dark.  Mitch and Max met many of the local kids and hung out with them the rest of the week while we were in town.
 
If you travel by cruise ship it is difficult to see attractions that take more than one day, go on a glacier tour or other evening events that extend past 6:00 at night.  These big ships come in at night, unload in the morning, and leave that evening between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. 

We also learned that they have business agreements with certain attractions and transportation services. 

 

For example, in Juneau the cruise ship staff tells you about the spectacular helicopter tour over the Mendenhall Glacier.  When we were at the glacier there must have been 20 helicopters flying the tourists overhead.  They looked like Alaskan mosquitos -- continuously coming and going from the glacier.  The cost for the helicopter tour is about $150 per person.

What they don't tell you is that the glacier is only ten miles from the center of town and that you can take a bus - round-trip - for less than $10.  So, I guess the moral to the story is that if you are planning to go on an Alaskan cruise, get on the Internet and do a little research about the places you will visit.  We're sure that the helicopter tour is fun and impressive, but its nice to have all the facts before you start shelling out all that money.
This picture was taken at the Mendenhall Glacier.   I don't want to sound complacent, (but after spending four months in Alaska,) if you've seen one glacier, you've seen them all.  Max was more impressed with the rock.  We've heard and seen the scratches in rocks that are made by advancing and retreating glaciers, but these were really dramatic.  Not the cracks, but the gouges running from top to bottom where rocks have been scraped along the way. 
We boarded the Alaska State Ferry in Skagway for a one hour trip to Haines.  We stayed in Haines for two nights and it rained most of the time.  We also stayed in Juneau, Wrangell, and Ketchikan -- none of which are accessible by road.  Our final stop on the ferry was Prince Rupert in British Columbia.  A lot of people will tell you that you need to book the ferry several months or even a year in advance, but we didn't buy tickets until we arrived in Skagway.  In June most travelers are heading north into Alaska and then there's a mass exodus that occurs in the fall when everyone is heading south.  We didn't want to have an extended stay halfway in route in a town with no roads out, (some towns only have ferry service once a week.)  We booked ferries all the way, but made changes twice and always made sure we had tickets that would get the distance.  If you'd like more information about traveling on the Alaska ferry drop us an e-mail.  One note about ferry travel with an RV -- it is very expensive.  If we knew what we do now, we wouldn't have traveled so far on the ferry with our 32' RV.  A couple of short hops would have been enough.
Blue Ice

A highlight of our Alaskan trip was a boat tour to Tracy Arm Glacier, a few hours out of Juneau.

Here's a small iceberg that has recently broken off the glacier.  When we took this photo, the iceberg had just rolled over.  The ice in the glacier is compressed under high pressure, squeezing out the oxygen.  As it floats in the bay it keeps it's blue, low oxygen color, but will soon turn white as the outer surface ice oxidizes, (rusty ice). 

 

As the steel hull of our small boat knocked against the ice, we watched families of seals sleeping on the floating ice.  Cheryl and the boys enjoyed watching the small pups.

By boat, this area is three hours south of Juneau up the Tracy Arm.  "Arms" are the term used for the waterways that go inland up the canyons.   In the photo below on the left, in the center of the glacier near the water, you can see some ice that is just hitting the water. Ed could have stayed there for days waiting for a massive piece to fall off and crash into the water.  One of the crew told us about a very large piece that fell off a month before, creating a twenty foot swell.

At times the captain approached close to the glacier but was always on the lookout.  He explained how large chunks of ice also break off of the bottom of the glacier a hundred feet below the water.  Ice floats, causing these icebergs to shoot to the surface like a missile.

We spent two hours hanging around this glacier and another hour seeing another glacier and some spectacular waterfalls.  At one waterfall the captain brought the bow of the boat under the waterfall.  Some Explorer Boy Scouts onboard took off their shirts and stood under the icy shower, but our boys were happy to just enjoy the spray.
One passenger onboard told us that they had also taken the famous Glacier Bay tour.  They said that this tour was much better.  Ed was glad to hear that, because Cheryl really wanted to see Glacier Bay.  A note about Glacier Bay -- these trips are expensive.  You can only get there via boat or airplane and the accommodations are pricey.
 
 Back on the Alaskan ferry, we were able to navigate passages too small for the big cruise ships. The Inside Passage is sprinkled with small fishing villages, many of which have no roads. Without roads, these towns have a personality unlike small towns in the Lower Forty-eight.

 We stopped at the small island of Wrangell, population 2479. As far as people we met, this had to be the friendliest, most pleasant place in Alaska.

We enjoyed visiting with locals.  One day we hung around the fishing docks in Wrangell talking with the fisherman.  We heard some pretty interesting stories.

Like, what do you do if the local fish processor has a full freezer, the next ship to haul the frozen fish to market won't be here until next week, and you arrive at the dock with 1,000 pounds of salmon in your boat's hold.  The fellow we talked to said that the local grocery store wouldn't buy his catch; (after all, no one here buys fish from a grocery store.)  The best he could get was 25 cents a pound from the crabbers to use as bait.  The best they can get for salmon is $1 a pound.

We bought 2 big crabs on the dock for $5 and a fisherman gave us a large salmon off of his boat, (but we insisted he take $10 for it.)

The town of Wrangle is about 10 blocks long with the marina on one end and the Ferry terminal on the other.  We were shopping in one of the two grocery stores when Cheryl said, "they are out of milk." The store manager came from around the corner and said the barge had arrived this morning.

He should have milk in the store in about four hours.   Here, everything comes and goes by barge.  On top of the containers there are cars, trucks, and boats.  Later when we drove by the ship yard, we watched a guy swing the door open on a container and drive a Toyota out.  Behind the Toyota was a couch and lots of boxes.
The Inside Passage has a lot of cloudy, rainy days and we saw our share.  We had gotten used to the dry climate of Fairbanks and the long daylight hours.  In Ketchikan we camped at a State Park that was in a rain forest.  It was a thick, dark green forest with a salmon creek running right next to the trailer.  Though it was beautiful, the trees, bushes, and ferns blocked all the light and held in the water.  We felt like we were living in a dark sponge, so we moved to an RV park at a marina.
Growing up in Seattle, Ed is used to a little rain during a Fourth of July Parade.  This parade was quite similar. 

Here, Max is standing on the parade route in downtown Ketchikan with a cruise ship in the background. 

We drove across a bridge to an island where we could take this picture of Ketchikan.  It looks like there are three cruise ships to the right. 

One difference we saw between Alaska and the Pacific Northwest is the way the mountains rise high and steep right out of the water. 

After a week in Ketchikan we boarded our last ferry and took a 12 hour ride south to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.  Along the way we saw a whale and several dolphins swimming next to the ferry.  Altogether we spent seventeen weeks in Alaska and the Yukon.  Within the next week we would once again be experiencing TV with more than two channels, three lane Interstate highways, rush hour traffic, the evening news filled with over-cooked scandal, violence and drama, and the general hustle and bustle of the Lower Forty-eight.

We had a great time in Alaska and highly recommend it to RV'ers.  Just give yourself enough time to enjoy it.
 
 
 
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