Through the Inside Passage

Juneau Travel Blog

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This weekend we headed up to Alaska to cruise the Inside Passage. The trip started out well, with our hotel in Vancouver sharing a building with IHOP, making someone very happy. Our waitress Monica was charming, and made sure I didn't miss out on the final "drops of happiness" in the beer bottle. Friday morning we flew up to Prince Rupert, managing to hang on to our seats when they started kicking people off (the floods that cut Prince Rupert off by land means the plane had to fly with more fuel than normal to be able to make it back).

Our first taste of wildlife came about ten seconds after hoping off the ferry from the airport to Prince Rupert - sitting on the rocks only metres below us was a bald eagle, with many others circling overhead. With their scavenger lifestyle, Bald Eagles up in Alaska and BC were as common as seagulls, and filling pretty much the same niche.

We didn't stay in BC for very long, we meet Russell and Mandy and hopped on the ferry, the M/V Columbia, that was to be our home for the next few days.

We had a long day to explore the ferry, which had a great observation lounge at the bow of the ship, and a deck overlooking the stern. We had a few beers in the cocktail lounge, some of us took naps, wrote a few postcards, and caught up with Russell and Mandy. The ferry had a nature guide, who broke up the day with ten minute talks about the area. One talk was about the different types of salmon - sockeye (red), chum (dog), pink (humpback), silver (coho) and king (chinook). The salmon are the main reason why the pacific northwest is so rich - their lifestyle causes a massive transfer of nutrients from the ocean inland. When they leave the streams they weigh only a few grams, but for their terminal return they weigh 10kg of rich nutrients. These salmon provide 70% of the nutrients for surrounding foliage, and when there are bears around the effect of salmon can travel a long way from shore. A single bear will remove 150 kilos of salmon from a stream in a day, move it far inland, and then only eat a quarter of it.

The first stop of the ferry after Prince Rupert was Ketchikan, Alaska.

We hoped off for a small walk around, were we found that the ravens had a weirdly melodic and metallic call, in addition to the normal caw. After Ketchikan we met Daniel, who was a linguistics masters student from Toronto who goes up to Petersburg every summer to work in a cannery, to earn the money for his studies. It seemed like most people were using the ferry as public transport rather than sightseeing. We had a few more beers with Daniel, who was great to talk to (and kept on laughing at our Australianess) and finally went to bed (well... sleeping bags on the deck) at sunset, which was about eleven o'clock and lasted for an hour.

Sunrise was about 2:30am, so there wasn't too much sleep. We stopped at Wrangle about midnight, then at Petersburg at 5am.

The mountains here were much higher than in the lower passages of the Inside Passage. The entire region formed 250 million years ago when the North American continent changed direction, creating the San Andreas fault line along the Pacific coast. The lateral shifts created cracks running along the coastline, and during ice ages (most recently the Wisconsin glaciation 10-70 thousand years ago) the glaciers flowed along the cracks, carving out valleys. The increased water level at the end of the ice age turned the area into a series of fjords and islands. It is remarkable at how well the landscape reflects the geology - when we looked at the mountains surrounding us, all mountains below 6000 metres (the hight of the ice-fields) are rounded and smooth, while all mountains above 6000 metres (immune to the erosion by glaciers) are still sharp and jagged.

In the afternoon we docked at Kake (the home of Alaska's tallest totem pole).

The final stretch of the ferry was Kake to Juneau, through Stevens Passage. This was the richest part of the trip for wildlife. At times we were seeing something every five minutes - a sea lion that stuck its head up as we passed, a pod of orca, harbour porpoises, Dall's porpoise, or a humpback whale. The humpback whales in the Inside Passage have a unique technique of fishing - a group of a dozen whales swim in circles around a school of fish releasing bubbles while others make vocalisations, to encircle the fish in a bubble-net that they won't cross. They make the circle tighter and tighter, then they all swim up through the bottom of the net with open mouths, and decimate the school.


Our final port was Juneau. We had good Mexican for dinner, then eventually found our way to our log cabin for the night (which took much effort). While we hadn't done much for the past few days it was good to sleep in a bed in a dark room, and even better to be able to wake up, and watch Bald Eagles on the lake. There were four or five around our cabin, including one which perched on the tree next to our cabin until it was chased away by a brave raven. We made scrambled eggs for breakfast, then headed off to Mendenhall Glacier, originally known as Sitaantaagu ("the Glacier Behind the Town") or Aak'wtaaksit ("the Glacier Behind the Little Lake") by the Tlingit people.


Russell and Mandy had to hop back on the ferry after the glacier, so we had the rest of the day to explore Juneau. The town is in a spectacular setting, with the mountains and the fjords, but is actually quite ugly. The outer parts have charming log cabins, Nordic houses and stairwell roads, but the inside is all ugly modern buildings and roads, with no parks or trails (actually the whole area is impossible for pedestrians). The waterfront is the worst - it looks more like Disneyland than a real town. I guess it is all due to the Cruise ships, which every year drop off one million tourists (who don't walk any further than the waterfront), for a town of only 30 000, equivalent to doubling the size of the town with new tourists every ten days.

We took the tram up to Mount Roberts, where we got to walk through the hemlock and spruce forest (threaded with Witch's hair lichen). We reached the tree line and saw a martin, before watching a very sanitised movie about the Tlingit people followed by offensive questions ("are you Eskimos?" "How many of you are there left?").

We finished up the day in the Silverbow, eating excellent bagels and taking turns to walk around (there was no luggage storage facility for us to leave our bag after the nice girl at the information centre left her shift). After my shift I got to see the Alaska State Building and St Nicholas, a Russian Orthodox Church built in 1894.

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photo by: amudha_colaco