Alaskan Water Ways
Most Inside Passage cruisers opt for giant ships and midnight buffets. The author found a less obtrusive way: commuter ferry.

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.

The next morning, with the weather still sunny, we chartered a boat to visit the Anan Bear Observatory, an observation deck built over a small waterfall at Anan Creek, 40 miles away. For a few weeks each summer, as thousands of salmon thrash upstream, wild bears hunt the fish, providing a spectacular wildlife scene.

During some two hours of travel down Zimovia Strait, past an archipelago of islands with names like Village, Button and Found, we passed just one other person in a small boat. No photograph can capture the solitude of being alone under a vast Alaska sky. Our captain, the perpetually cheerful Jim Bailey, pulled up to small islands and pointed out seals 20 feet away. When he tried to lure some of the critters to the side of the boat, his series of grunts cracked us up but elicited no seals.

A bald eagle perched on an outcropping at the entrance to Anan, while another sheltered in the shade. Inside a small lagoon, two grizzly bear sisters -- dubbed Thelma and Louise -- playfully swatted each other. Forest Service interpreter Vina Talea Stough, a member of the local Tlingit tribe, warned us that we might encounter bears on the half mile-long hike to the observation deck. She had a rifle slung over her shoulder to indicate she was serious.

Stough instructed us to call out "Hey bear!" around every blind turn. If a bear were to appear in our path, she said, "Wave your hands in the air to seem bigger." Most important, she added, "never turn and run -- it's like a dog chasing a can." Huge claw marks on the wooden steps and planks reinforced her warnings.

A flight of steps at the observatory led down to a photographer's dream -- a photo blind directly across from the hunting bears. There is usually a time limit, but since we had the deck to ourselves, we shot pictures as long as we wanted. Below us, the stream writhed, as thousands of salmon raced for narrow gaps between the rocks and the waterfall . In 21/2 hours, I counted more than 20 black bears and grizzlies. The bears caught an endless number of salmon, carrying the flapping fish to higher ground before eating them -- occasionally pausing to glare at the pesky humans a few feet away.

Fly-By Glaciers

The weather cooperated again the next day for our flight-seeing trip over the majestic Stikine River and the Shakes and LeConte glaciers. The skies were cloudy but bright, and icefields dozens of miles long stretched into the horizon.

Clouds melded with the sea of ice and snow, and here and there dark hulks of mountains rose, forbidding and austere. We nipped through a hole in one layer of clouds to approach and circle Devil's Thumb, a sharp jut of rock 9,000 feet high that presides over a series of cliffs and glaciers called the Witches' Cauldron. Our pilot told us that a climber had died in a crevasse a few days earlier.

That evening, I rented a kayak and, with sunset approaching, paddled a mile near Wrangell to a beach that had several stones marked with petroglyphs. The ancient human designs are thousands of years old, their origins unknown.

As we waited for our ferry back to Ketchikan, children at the dock hawked garnets mined from a local ledge -- the coarse stones are tokens of love. As gems they are basically worthless, but they make great souvenirs. We arrived in Ketchikan after 2 in the morning -- Alaskans don't seem to notice the inconvenience of meeting the ferry at odd hours of the night, and we didn't think much of it, either.

The next two days were rainy -- standard Ketchikan weather -- and I used the time to check out the town's excellent indoor Totem Heritage Center, which displays 33 original Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Souvenir totems bought here support the center and local artisans. A short ride north of Ketchikan is the village of Saxman, which boasts a series of totem poles and a carving workshop. Downtown Ketchikan's independent bookstore, Parnassus, is also worth a visit, and I spent part of one damp afternoon cozily reading in an armchair.

On Friday morning, when the weather turned bright again, we headed to Misty Fjords National Monument, about two dozen miles east of Ketchikan. The fiords, known locally as "Misty," cover thousands of acres of cliffs and evergreen forests, with more waterfalls than you can possibly count.

We passed dozens of seals loitering on New Eddystone, an island that looks from a distance like a sailing ship. Once we reached the fiords, mist hung from the sky in giant wreaths, altering peaks and valleys, revealing islands and forests, and creating vistas forever new and always in flux.

Joyride on a Floatplane

Few people realize that there is snorkeling and diving so far north, but the water around is clear, if cold, and I'd planned to snorkel on my last day of the trip. But then Ernie Meloche, a colleague of our family friends, called and offered a joyride in his floatplane. This is not as elitist as it sounds: The state has the largest number of pilots per capita in the country, and flying between cities in Alaska is as common as Washingtonians taking Amtrak to New York.

We took off at 4:40 a.m. As the sun rose, Meloche maneuvered the plane back and forth behind a ridge of clouds so that we saw a series of "sunrises." Each time the sun burst forth, Meloche, a large man with a great white beard who resembles a merry Shakespearean king, yelled out, "Good morning!" Flying through clouds and sky shot with streaks of orange, we touched down at Misty Fjords.

Mountains covered with hemlock, spruce and cider rose around the T-shaped area of Rodney Bay, where we had landed. Silvery waterfalls threaded through the evergreen forests. The ripples from our landing spread out beneath us and the water grew still. In the gentle light of dawn, the plane bobbed and rotated, as if to take in the view. We were alone for miles in every direction. The silence was so absolute that even the sound of our breathing felt like an intrusion.

I took a deep, deep breath. Already, I felt wistful about the ending vacation. Meloche, as if reading my thoughts, reminded me that beautiful sunrises were always underway somewhere on Earth. As we took off, a rainbow arced across the sky and someone joked about searching for the pot of gold at the end of it.

Meloche did not miss a beat. "We're in it." he said, with complete sincerity. "We're already in it."

Shankar Vedantam is a reporter on The Post's National desk.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company