Alaskan Water Ways

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2003

The afternoon sun glinted off the waters of the Inside Passage. Alaska residents were scattered around the deck, soaking up the rays, napping in the solarium or chatting with tourists. In the forward observation deck, U.S. Forest Service personnel genially urged nature enthusiasts to keep an eye out for whales -- so that the captain could wheel the ship around for a better look.

Cruising through Alaska's famed Inside Passage during daylight hours. Meeting the locals. Focusing on nature, rather than entertainment. A small, select ocean liner? Hardly.

I was on the M/V Taku, one of nine ferries in the marvelous Alaska Marine Highway, a state-run ferry system that stops year-round at many locations where the cruise ships do not. The ferry is what Alaskans use to travel their state, but they're a great cruise alternative for visitors, too. Reservations can be easily made over the Internet, and the fares are inexpensive compared with the big cruise lines. You don't get waited on, and there are no unlimited food spreads and nonstop entertainment, but they offer comfortable cabins, cafeterias and a non-commercial way to see what natives call the "real Alaska."

In a few hours, the ferry would drop me off at Wrangell, an unprettified town not on most cruise ship itineraries, which nonetheless boasts some of the finest sights in all of Alaska. Over the next couple of days, I would watch bears hunt salmon leaping up a waterfall, swoop low in a plane over the chilling wasteland of the Stikine Icefield, and kayak to a quiet beach with 10,000-year-old petroglyphs. I would also have the chance to meet Alaskans and pump money into local businesses.

Most important, I would get to experience Alaska in near total solitude.

Grizzlies and Salmon

While the big cruise ships cover hundreds of miles in a week, mostly by tearing through the Inside Passage at night, independent travelers usually opt to spend more time in a few places. Starting in the southeastern Alaskan town of Ketchikan, my family and I traveled six hours on the ferry to Wrangell and back, about 100 miles each way, spending several days in and around each port. Our party, which included two seniors, found Alaskans incredibly helpful. As I ambled around Ketchikan on foot one day, for example, I lost my way and ended up next to the jail. A local pulled up in her minivan, asked if I was lost and dropped me off downtown.

Ketchikan is a small town of about 14,000, nestled in green hills and framed by water and mountains. The evening we arrived, family friends there regaled us with tales of wild bears attacking their garbage cans at night and sometimes peering in through bedroom windows, giant claws scraping against the wire mesh. It all seemed dreamily remote.

The following morning, however, two cruise ships pulled into town, bringing in as many as 7,000 tourists and crew -- half the size of the city. The ships towered over the skyline, making them the biggest sight for miles. Locals literally shuttered their homes when the visitors swarmed ashore. There were only two opinions I heard about cruise ships from residents during my weeklong stay: that they were an unmitigated evil or a necessary evil. Even I sighed with relief when the ships pulled out that afternoon, returning the town to itself.

We were visiting in early August, the warmest part of the Alaskan summer. While this year's winter has been especially mild in Alaska, most tourists visit in the summer, with late July and early August being the peak period. Temperatures occasionally touched 80 degrees during my visit, and it never got colder than about 50.

Forewarned that southeast Alaska gets enormous amounts of rain, we'd packed ponchos and rain gear. We got two days of rain out of seven. This is one good reason not to plan hectic travel between Alaskan ports. It will almost certainly rain on some days of any trip and it is better to stay in ports for a few days and adapt travel plans to the weather.

The next afternoon, we boarded a ferry for the six-hour voyage to Wrangell. The 352-foot-long ship was one of the fleet's older vessels. High-speed ships are expected soon -- although why would anyone want to rush through such a beautiful journey?

Our tickets came with a four-bed cabin, an attached bathroom and a shower, but we spent most of our time on deck or in the forward Observation Room, where Forest Service personnel offered lectures on local history and the passing scenery. (Forest Service trivia question: "Why did native Alaskans go naked under thick, long fur coats on long winter hunts?" Answer: "Have you ever had to pee while you are outdoors under six layers of clothing?") In Wrangell, where we stayed for three days, we had made reservations at the aptly named Grand View Bed and Breakfast. Our host, Judy Baker, picked us up from the dock. As we drove back, she exchanged smiles and pleasantries with almost every passing driver.

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