This year has largely been about Alaska, exploring the state both on land and at sea. It’s also been a reminder that there’s an amazing world out there and there’s nothing better than taking the opportunity to explore when you can. As the summer passed by at lightening speed and the rainy weather starts to set in, I feel truly grateful that I was able to spend so much time in such a stunningly beautiful place that still elicits a feeling of untouched solitude encased with picture perfect blue skies. Visiting Alaska in both the spring and at the brink of fall, the landscapes were strikingly different and the experiences that came from both trips are some I’ll never forget. Each year never turns out the way you think it will. The best times are those that are unexpected; the times when it was impossible to guess what the next adventure would bring.
While I initially went to Alaska earlier this year for work, I also had a chance to cruise up there. Since I work in the industry, I always recommend cruising for its carefree ease of traveling and seeing places you wouldn’t otherwise see. But in all honesty, I’m afraid I might be a little too close to it now to truly enjoy it the same way I once did; the lively deck parties, the laugh-out-loud contestant shows, the endless buffets and musical renditions. What I’ve always loved about cruising is waking up each morning in a new place and watching an endless sea of blue drift out to the horizon in the afternoons. So what’s changed? Certainly not the vast space to sail on or the systematic calls to port every day. For me, it’s likely having a greater understanding of what keeps the cities at sea afloat. Just like making movies, if you know too much, sadly it takes all the magic away. I could never say I don’t enjoy cruising anymore. I just view the experience through a different lens. So… about visiting Alaska…
There are more and more cruise lines heading up to Alaska each year and there’s an endless list of itineraries. Some sailings leave and return to Seattle or Vancouver, BC while others do one-way northbound and southbound sailings. Some of the most popular stops during many of the Alaska cruise itineraries are Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Considered Southeast Alaska, each place has ample opportunities to get away and experience what Alaska is all about. Growing up in North Idaho, I’m not a stranger to the outdoors and the long lines of evergreen trees but I don’t think I fully realized what I was missing until I stumbled into Alaska again this year.
As one of the rainiest places in the country with an average of 234 days of rain, it’s hard to visit Ketchikan without a rainy day here or there but with the rain comes a beautiful town setting not far from Misty Fjords National Monument. Since I love visiting national parks, monuments etc., I was determined to make a trip to Misty Fjords this time. Given that I was not particularly eager to get on another float plane, I hopped on a shore excursion headed out to the area.
Misty Fjords National Monument is a part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest intact coastal rainforest in America. Away from the hustle of the city back home, it was a perfect way to start the trip, at peace watching as we sped out to Misty Fjords, first passing by the basalt pillar called New Eddystone Rock.
As we approached Behm Canal, where the fjords were once carved by massive bodies of ice, it felt a bit like entering a secret lair. Similar to driving into Yosemite valley, it’s impossible not to be hit with the pure brilliance of the surrounding peaks.
After about a million photos and fully content on the ride back to Ketchikan, back in town, I scurried over to Creek Street in the rain to get a few shots before heading to the ship.
Juneau is arguably the epicenter of tourism for southeast Alaska since there are so many excursion options to choose from. Whether its whale watching, glacier hiking, dog sledding, floatplane sightseeing or pigging out on a crab or salmon feast; Juneau has it all. As the capital of Alaska, Juneau is filled with state history and there really is something for everyone. Protected by the inland passage, some of the best whale watching occurs around Juneau.
This time, however, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 AM and hopped on a tour right off the ship to visit Tracy Arm Fjord. While the cruise ship was due to sail into Tracy Arm in the morning and then continue to Juneau, the area was shrouded by fog, and so we left the ship behind in the cool misty morning and cruised on a catamaran up into the fjord. Although some cruise itineraries visit Tracy Arm, if you want a closer look at the twin Sawyer Glaciers, taking a tour is worth the extra cost.
We cruised along the carved canyons, waterfalls, and trees popping out of the fog before reaching the glaciers.
Giant pieces of ice bobbed out of the water like buoys and the cracking of ice echoed off the canyon walls as the ice calved into the channel. It was a spectacular experience and no doubt worth the 5:30 AM wake up call. We even saw a bear and some resident whales on the way back.
Still, Skagway remains my favorite stop on the southeast Alaska itineraries. The first time I visited Skagway, it was right before the season was beginning, and the town was just waking up from the winter hiatus. At night, we walked through the middle of the street without a soul to be seen and owned the night. This time around, it was a bit different with cruise ships lining the docks, but the scenery in Skagway can’t be beat.
Hopping on the White Pass railway, on the way up to the Yukon territory and along Bennett Lake, was the highlight of the trip. The sun was shining as we passed by jagged peaks gaining elevation over White Pass and watched as the mountains reflected off the 100 mile Bennett Lake.
It was a perfect day in every way as we ended our train ride in Carcross and descended back down to Skagway by bus with photo stops along the way. Besides the scenic beauty of the area, rich in history and originally serving as the gateway to the Yukon and Klondike goldfields, Skagway has many historical and adventure tours to choose from including a tour of the historic Red Onion Saloon, once serving as a brothel and a remanent of a lost age.
We then sailed out of Skagway as the light faded from the sky in what can only be described as surreal; the soul of Alaska waving goodbye. Until we meet again, old friend.
So here’s to the crystal blue water and the reflecting ponds; to the snow-covered peaks, glacial ice and evergreen trees. Here’s to the people who work and live in this magical place so millions can visit each year. Here’s to the wildlife that call Alaska home and to the northern lights that, if you’re lucky enough to see, streak the sky. Here’s to the long summer nights and the gorgeous sunsets. Here’s to a year filled with Alaska and to returning again and again. And of course to the next adventure. No matter how far we travel or where we end up, how much the world changes or the differences that arise, one thing will forever remain the same – we’ll always be under one sky, if only we can remember to keep looking up.
Music by Mumford and Sons – “Wild”