Publisher’s Note: North to Alaska

1891

We heard voices outside our suite. “There’s one—at the bottom of the jutting rock!” Another: “See them? A mama and two cubs left of the waterfall!” Oohs, aahs and more shouts echoed from other passengers whose exterior decks aligned with ours on the ninth floor starboard (right) side of our cruise ship. I grabbed the camera, and we hopped out to our deck to see yet another spectacular creature—this time, brown bears along the shore not far away.

Princess Cruises’ Island Princess was home to my wife, Jennifer, and me for a week in August. The 900-foot vessel cut surprisingly smoothly and quietly through the water as we traveled the Inside Passage from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Alaska, with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Whittier. It was our first cruise and our first trip to Alaska.

What we had heard about taking cruises was true: It is just like staying in a moving hotel; we only had to unpack once, while traveling nearly 2,000 miles in a week’s time. Amenities were endless: dining, wine tasting, gambling, educational classes, exercise options. (Despite a never-ending supply of food, we managed a zero net weight gain by running around the ship—three laps to a mile—and taking our first-ever spin classes.) The best parts for us were relaxing on our deck and staring at the dramatic views, enjoying the quiet, reading, playing Sudoku and taking some awe-inspiring day trips to fish or to see glaciers.

The beauty, wildness and scope of Alaska are incredible. There’s a shred of truth to my observation that the Sierra Nevada looks like Capitol Park compared to the endlessly majestic, dense-green and cleaved-by-raging-waterfalls mountains of Alaska. What’s more, the wildlife is incredibly diverse. In our one week, we saw whales (orca, humpback, minke), dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, pink and silver salmon, Dolly Varden trout, black and brown bears, mountain goats, dozens of bald eagles and an osprey.

Day trips to Juneau and Skagway were our favorites; in both beautifully rustic and historic towns, we enjoyed lovely meals at restaurants we simply happened upon. In Skagway, we rode the restored White Pass Railroad 21 miles up through breathtaking peaks along the same route that 100,000-plus gold seekers climbed in the late 1800s as they sought Yukon and Klondike gold. From the train, we observed mountain goats perched atop craggy, sheer cliffs—a scene right out of some old cartoon. The ruggedness is mind-boggling, the history fascinating. I was inspired to read Jack London’s Tales of the Klondike, a wonderful book of short stories about the people—and the times.

The glaciers there must be seen to be comprehended. In another first, we flew by helicopter to the Meade Glacier. As we gazed upon a milewide river of ice cresting three-quarters of a mile above us, my wife exclaimed, “It looks like you could just walk right up to heaven!”

The Island Princess departed Vancouver Island August 10, 2008, passing this lighthouse.

Eagles were abundant in Juneau. “Just look for the golfballs in the trees,” we were told. Here are two.

Jennifer, Mike and Chris atop a glacier.

This river of frozen ice was approximately a quarter-mile wide and two miles long.

Entering College Fjord in the Prince William Sound. The fjord was discovered in 1899 and contains dozens of smaller glaciers, most named after renowned East coast colleges (women’s colleges for the NW side, and men’s colleges for the SE side).

Schools of Minke Whales were seen along the ship’s route.

Four Sea Otters cruise along backwards, on their backs.

Beautifully restored touring car in Skagway.

We rode up to White Pass on the restored White Pass/Yukon Railroad, which makes a 42 mile round trip out of Skagway, up an incredible pass, along the same route gold seekers did in 1898-1899 after gold was discovered.

Two Mountain Goats seen from the White Pass & Yukon Train.

Brown bear along the shore of Alaska’s southwestern coast.

Alaskan sunset from the Island Princess August 15, 2008.