There are no words, no pictures, no blogs or books that can adequately describe the beauty and grandeur of Alaska. It simply must be experienced. Whether you are a hearty and intrepid soul whose aim is to hike the Chilkoot Trail into the Yukon like the Klondike gold miners of days gone by, or aim to cruise the southeastern coast of Alaska by luxury cruise ship, you will experience something that you will never forget, long to repeat, and fail miserably to put into words.
My first trip to Alaska was in July 2002. Like the one from which I returned only today, it was aboard a luxurious mega ship (the Island Princess, which is actually small compared to many of today’s cruise ships.) And as much as the two trips followed the same route, they could not have been more different. Alaska changes all of the time: seasons (even weeks within seasons), time of day, weather conditions – even a change of the sun's angle can alter the landscape.
People take cruises for a variety of very good reasons: to “get away from it all,” to be pampered, to party until dawn while someone else does the driving, to “see the world,” etc. But a cruise to Alaska is unlike a typical cruise experience. Of course all of the usual cruise trappings are available, and many people take advantage of them: spa treatments, art auctions, bingo, trivia quizzes. But an Alaskan cruise makes you privy to the magnificence of nature along the southeastern coast of the USA’s largest state. (You can fit 2.5 Texases within its borders.)
You can take Alaskan cruises of several varieties, but the two most popular are the round-trip “Inside Passage” voyage and the one-way Vancouver to Seward (or Whittier) cruise or its reverse. The round-trip voyages are a little easier to plan, and purchasing round-trip airfare to Seattle or Vancouver is a little less expensive than “open jaw” airfares that fly you into one city and out of another, which the north/south-bound sailings require. But a trip where you get to Skagway (the northernmost city in the Inside Passage cruises) and then just turn around, after all that sailing, causes you to miss out (usually) on the spectacular Glacier Bay and College Fjord, the Kenai Peninsula, and the opportunity to travel even further into Alaska’s interior.
Our trip began in Vancouver, a beautiful green city, and proceeded up the “Inside Passage” through narrow fjords 2,000 feet deep and lined (sometimes on either side) by steep, snow-covered mountains that reach 7,000 feet into the clouds. We stopped in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway before disembarking at Whittier. We spent more time on deck (and on our balcony) observing the scenery than watching entertainment extravaganzas or partaking of lavish meals and fine wines. We took this cruise for one reason: to see Alaska, to experience the power and beauty of its coast, to see the glaciers. No elegant cruise clothes for us. Warm gloves, rain-resistant, fleece-lined windbreakers, and a good camera (and lots of memory or film) were all the gear we needed.
I love glaciers, am fascinated by them, lured towards them, and in Alaska, as in the Canadian Rockies, they are disappearing at an alarming rate; soon (perhaps in our own lifetimes) they may vanish altogether. "See Alaska before it melts" is a phrase we heard multiple times on our journey.
The glaciers flow from beyond the clouds, practically glowing in surreal shades of blue – from sapphire to cobalt to aqua. They tumble into mirror-like glacial pools and the open sea, turning bodies of water shades of cornflower blue or emerald green. And the first sighting of a glacier or a small iceberg (called a "bergy bit") is always a big moment on an Alaskan cruise.
The glaciers and waterfalls and the mountains behind them appear large, but there is no real sense of scale from the tenth deck of an enormous ship. Then suddenly you realize that the glacier with which you are face to face is actually five miles away. Looking around, you see 100-foot trees dwarfed by the sheer immensity of these walls of blue, black and white ice. And as you hear the thunderous roar of a glacier calving spires of blue ice into the water, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that the mass of snow and ice cascading down the mountain and into the sea is the size of a high-rise building. And that small speck, that humble dot against the glacier’s face – a bird? No, it's another cruise ship, so dwarfed by the ice mountain’s majesty it seems a mere speck of dust.
Lakes the color of emeralds or star sapphires dot the coastline, created by glacial melt. The finely ground rock carried with the melted ice looks like glacial flour. Waterfalls that anywhere else would be named landmarks or state parks are anonymous here, like the majority of the hanging and tidewater glaciers, yet spectacular, pouring tons of fresh glacial water thousands of miles down a barren mountainside with a roar that outshouts the ship’s engines at times.
Yet it is not simply the stark physical beauty of the land that transfixes, captivates and mesmerizes. Whales (orca, humpbacks, elusive minkes), sea lions, stellar and harbor seals, and sea otters treat the eyes of careful watchers of the sea, even from a mega ship (although shore excursions on small catamarans are better to see the wildlife – and get closer to the glaciers). And if the ship has an on-board, full-time naturalist as ours did, more’s the better; each day he would narrate, ever on the lookout for the tell-tale spouting of a humpback, the six-foot dorsal fin of a male orca, or the lonely silhouette of a bear digging for clams at low tide on a nearby shore.
To quote John Muir, whose explorations of Alaska and knowledge of the land of the glaciers is legendary: “That a man should welcome storms for their exhilarating music and motion, and go forth to see God making landscapes…“