This week’s dream
A tour by ferry of Alaska’s Inside Passage
Luxury cruises through Alaska’s Inside Passage have become “insanely popular,” but fortunately, there’s another way to take in the region’s singular beauty, said Mark Adams in The New York Times. The Inside Passage is a route that traces the state’s eastern panhandle, cutting through the densely islanded waters between Ketchikan and Glacier Bay National Park, and because the sea is the only way to reach many of the towns and cities along the way, state-operated ferries, known collectively as the Alaska Marine Highway System, connect them all. Looking to explore on a schedule of my own making, I recently joined halibut fishermen and other longtime Alaska residents on a 38-hour ferry ride from Bellingham, Wash., to Ketchikan, beginning a ferry-hopping tour that, though it lacked the comforts that come with a $4,000 cruise, made up for them in freedom.
Though the scenery was almost always gorgeous, few sights compared to the Mendenhall Glacier, a frozen river “as spectacular as anything in Yellowstone.” Blessed with a sunny day during my stopover in Juneau, I hiked a few hours to reach the Mendenhall Ice Caves, which create a cathedral inside the glacier, a space illuminated “as if through indigo stained glass.” John Muir, the pioneering naturalist who gave birth to Alaskan tourism with a popular 1915 travelogue, memorably described the ice as an “almost shrieking vitriol blue”—and he was right. Sadly, the retreat of the glacier means none of the ice caves are reachable this year without canoes or other equipment, and climbing expertise is required.
The effects of global warming are most apparent in Gustavus, a tiny town that serves as the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. As ice retreats, the release of its weight causes the land in Gustavus to rise about 2 inches a year, claiming solid ground from the surrounding waters.
On a guided full-day boat tour of the bay, the ranger on board took us to the spot that, in the 1890s, marked the edge of a glacier named for Muir. It was now open water, and the glacier had receded 30 miles and out of sight. After continuing farther up the coast, we stopped near the Margerie Glacier to witness icebergs calving. Sure enough, every 10 minutes or so, “a thunderclap rang out and a chunk of ice plummeted, creating an epic splash.” In the end we lingered near the Margerie for about half an hour, “entranced by its beautiful violence.”
Find Alaska Marine Highway System ferry routes and schedules at www.dot.state.ak.us. ■