Guest contributor, Michael O'Hearn, is an information technology professional living in the greater Boston area who also freelances as a writer and photographer. He went to school with the AWT Editor nearly fifty years ago. His article, "Alaska, For the First Time", describes his recent visit to the 49th state. It was also his first visit to the American West (and hopefully not his last). To see more of Michael O'Hearn's Alaska photos and other photos from around the world, please visit his Facebook page.
Alaska is a name to conjure with – to those who have never been, it suggests wilderness, prospecting for gold, glaciers, bears, the Northern Lights, and spectacular scenery. It's an enormous place, too big to take it all in one trip. We began with grandiose plans, but soon discovered that time and money limitations suggested our first trip be a one-week cruise along the southeastern Alaskan coast. It turned out to be a wonderful appetizer, introducing us to an area that we hope to revisit in much more detail in the near future.
[Left: Dawes Glacier slides into the sea.]
Our voyage departed from Seattle, long the gateway to Alaska from the Lower 48. We happened to choose Norwegian Cruise Lines, but a number of companies offer similar trips, often with some slight variation in itineraries.
The ship's first stop was at Ketchikan, which true to its reputation was mostly rainy, varying to overcast in between showers. The winds off the Pacific are forced to drop their moisture here by the wall of coastal mountains, giving an average yearly rainfall of around 160 inches. The local Chamber of Commerce has learned to call this "liquid sunshine." Mold must grow like wildfire in the houses! But the resultant rain forest provides its own foggy beauty to the scenery.
This southernmost city of the Alaskan panhandle, known as "The Salmon Capital of the World," started here in 1883 with the establishment of a salmon saltery, and soon thereafter, a cannery. Ever since, fishing has been a mainstay of the local economy, although there have been periods when both mining and logging contributed to local prosperity.
The salmon were heading upstream to spawn when we were there, which made the Creek Street bridge a perfect spot to see masses of them swimming underneath, while others leapt free of the water in the inner harbor. One rented rod and the purchase of a temporary license later, and several of us did rapid-fire catch-and-release for an hour. Creek Street is also noted for its old wooden buildings jutting out over the water and connected by wooden walkways, the picturesque remains of one of Alaska's most famous red light districts, although now given over to more mundane pursuits like souvenir sales.
[Right: A totem pole in Ketchikan.]
We tramped around the town for hours, trying to squeeze in seeing as much as we could - no detail too small! We found totem poles, hillside neighborhoods connected by wooden stairways instead of streets, a fishing harbor, streams and primeval woods… and shopping opportunities.
Let's pause here to state that cruise industry is a double-edged sword. It brings money, often desperately needed, to ports that invite it, but it also transforms these destinations into cruise ports with streets lined with shops catering to the cruise passengers and transforms the character of the place. Every town we stopped at had numerous jewelry shops with big "sales," all of which had been touted on board before we arrived. I guess the main point of cruising for many people is rushing ashore to shop in each port. But once you get a couple of blocks or more back from the waterfront, a lot of the tinsel falls away and we found it a lot more interesting.
After sailing all night, we arrived in Juneau, the state capital, early the next morning. Juneau is squeezed between the mountains and the shore, and is only accessible by air and water; it’s the only state capital that you can’t drive to. It was the discovery of gold in 1880 that brought settlement here to the narrow shores of the Gastineau Channel.
Its setting lends it drama, and the very first thing we did after disembarking was to take the tramway that runs from the waterfront up Mt. Roberts to go hiking on the trails above the clouds. It was great; almost nobody else was up there with us, we got to see mountain goats on seemingly sheer cliffs, there were large patches of snow despite being late August, and we got great views down to the business district and waterfront through breaks in the clouds.
Its setting lends it drama, and the very first thing we did after disembarking was to take the tramway that runs from the waterfront up Mt. Roberts to go hiking on the trails up above the clouds. It was great; almost nobody else was up there with us, we got to see mountain goats on seemingly sheer cliffs, there were large patches of snow despite being late August, and we got great views down to the business district and waterfront through breaks in the clouds.
[Right: A bald eagle.]
Once the ship sailed, it took us to Endicott Arm and the Ford's Terror Fjord to see Dawes Glacier; pretty awesome for easterners still not used to spectacle. The trip in to the glacier is marked by sculpture on a scale we’ve never seen before: huge mountains scoured clean and smooth by the inexorable movement of ice in some spots, while in others the steep slopes were covered with pines and bisected with waterfalls running with water freshly melted from the summer snowfields above. The fjords we travelled through were glacier-cut, flooded by the sea as the glaciers retreated. The bay before the glacier was filled with floes and bits of bergs, of ghostly color and eerily sculpted. The floating ice comes from the ice face, a mile wide and over 150' high, where massive chunks fall at random intervals.
The following morning saw our arrival in Skagway (photo, left). This town's moment in the sun occurred in the late 1890s when it served as the gateway that funneled the gold-seeking stampeders towards the Yukon goldfields along the Klondyke. Prospecters landed with their outfits (the Canadians required everyone heading to the Klondyke to bring a years worth of supplies with them, in addition to their mining equipment) on Skagway's beaches, were supplied, scammed, and extorted by the town's merchants and criminals, and then headed overland along the "Trail of '98." Along this grinding, killing path though the mountains prospective miners had to carry their supplies, one backbreaking load at a time, up into the mountains to cross the dreaded Chilkoot Pass and descend on the other side to Lake Bennett… where they would then have to build a boat to float themselves and their belongings down the Yukon River to Dawson, the heart of the gold rush. Eventually entrepreneurs had a narrow-gauge railroad built to Lake Bennett to alleviate this labor for those who could afford it.
As we debarked the ship, Skagway was exceptionally sunny and warm, which everyone commented on as unusual. Our first order of business was to ride the historic White Pass and Yukon Railroad up to the mountains and into Canada. It’s an amazing ride, especially in the spots where you can look out and see remnants of the original foot trail, with weathered debris like broken barrels and crates dumped by the original stampeders still visible in spots along it. We spent the trip standing out in the open on the platform between cars, not wanting to miss a moment of the vistas and crags all around us, over trestles and through mountainside tunnels, thinking about and pitying the laborers who hewed this roadbed out with hammers, explosives, injuries, and death.
Later, back in Skagway we wandered the length of the town, seeing some of the original gold rush era buildings, and then out along the tracks to where some old railroad equipment, including a steam locomotive, rusts away in the woods. Along the way there, I waded through a stream - it was FRIGID! - with salmon brushing by and through my legs.
[Right: The White Pass and Yukon Railroad as it approaches an avalanche tunnel.]
Our final stop was in British Columbia, at Prince Rupert. We really knew we were out of Alaska and in Canada when we left the pier and saw a Royal Canadian Mounted Police office, a "Mountie," in full, red dress uniform on the main street. We found a place that rented motor scooters, so we took them all around, out of town into the woods and mountains and then back again for a couple of hours. We saw deer grazing on people's lawns in town, and when walking around later we found bear footprints in a dirt and gravel parking lot right by one of the town’s fish plants. Scattered throughout the town were a number of original and impressive Tlingit totem poles. And then, sadly, we reboarded the ship and were back to sea for a full day before returning to Seattle.
Despite our initial misgivings at taking a cruise rather than taking a more hands-on approach to visiting Alaska, we were delighted with our experience. The whole trip was a definite winner as a quick introduction to Southeast Alaska for first-timers. It strengthened our interest in returning and gave us some specific goals to look forward to – like taking the Alaska State Ferry System to customize our itinerary and allow us to spend more time in places we like; hiking the Trail of '98; and sea kayaking and camping the islands and sounds of the Inside Passage. We’re looking forward to a lot more Alaska! And we still haven’t touched the bulk of the state. Maybe the future also holds Kodiak, Bristol Bay, Barrow, Savoonga, the interior, Nome, the Yukon River... you name it.
On our days at sea we saw whales breeching; we spotted bears on the further outskirts of Ketchikan; seals by the pier in Skagway; and bald eagles on the pier pilings just outside the center of Juneau. Bring a pair of light a pair of light binoculars (they’ll see a lot of use). Also, take along some lightweight, breathable rain gear (we bought some quite inexpensively at the Tongas Trading Post store in Ketchikan) to deal with the region's changeable weather. Finally, remember that any trip calling in Canada now requires you to bring a passport along for every member of the party.