Many Americans have never heard of it. Most Northwesterners know little about it, despite the fact that this geological wonder and nature lover’s paradise has its beginning in our own back yard. However, if you own a boat, or if you’ve boarded a cruise ship and traveled north, or enjoyed close encounters with nature from your kayak, the Inside Passage to Alaska is surely alive in your memory.
This 1,000-mile waterway connects us to the top of Alaska’s panhandle (the latter referred to as simply “southeast” by Alaska’s natives). The route actually begins at the bottom of Puget Sound and ends in Glacier Bay and Skagway. This wild but accessible waterway has only two rivals on planet Earth; the island-dotted coast of Chile, and the well protected west coast of Norway. Of course, our own Inside Passage is conveniently close.
Tree-choked islands, large and small, crowd up against the coastlines of British Columbia and Alaska, providing a winding, sheltered waterway. Some hearty types paddle the labyrinth by kayak, some set sail, some cruise leisurely in small power or sailboats, and some travel by ferry or small supply vessels boasting tourist amenities; many travelers are content to view the blue/green panorama from 14 stories above the waterline in a giant cruise ship. Rough seas? Hardly ever.
The natives talk of “mountains with their feet in the sea,” an apt name for this steep, rugged coastline. Narrow fjords are chiseled into vertical snow-topped walls all the way north. I remember nosing the bow of our little craft right up to a vertical cliff face to collect water cascading from above; there was about 400 feet of water directly beneath us. We’ve kayaked among “bergy bits” spawned by glaciers. We’ve watched a humpback whale break the surface, jaws agape as it gobbled a school of herring a few feet from our bow. I once had a mother whale and her calf pass under my kayak; now that’s getting close to nature! We’ve even photographed grizzlies and black bears plucking salmon from a rushing river.
How much of this intimacy with Mother Nature can you expect in the Inside Passage? Naturally, it depends on your elected mode of travel. Much has changed in past years, the choices having expanded greatly. First, the “big guys,” those giant cruise ships that carry thousands of passengers in comfort. These ships provide an overview of the passage and side trips by small plane over mountains and ice fields out of Juneau or Ketchikan…plus lots of shopping.
If you prefer more intimacy with your surroundings: in the last few years several small cruise lines have started up, offering true “adventure travel.” These comfortable craft carry anywhere from 14 to 90 guests in private cabins. Bypassing the tourist towns, these “nature cruises” offer kayaking, Zodiac trips, hiking, and visits to native enclaves. Cabins are cozy but comfortable and great food is a bonus. For those on a budget, Alaska ferries allow passengers to haul aboard their tents and sleeping bags for camping on deck, or to pay for small inside cabins. The ferries stop at remote, picturesque villages to let locals on and off.