April 7, 2020

Inside Passage, Alaska, USA

Jun 2007

Inside Passage refers to a network of waterways, carved out by glaciers, that runs from Puget Sound in Washington State in United States northwards through Pacific coast of British Columbia in Canada and the Alaskan panhandle.

The Alaskan end of Inside passage is quite scenic.  It is 800 km long, and 160 km wide; is separated from Pacific Ocean and its weather by an archipelago; and encompasses thousands of islands, islets, coves, and bays.  Coastal mountains rise up to spectacular heights at the edge of the sea.  The humpback whales stay here during summer months. It receives around 2 million tourists a year; most of them doing the "Inside Passage Cruise" through luxury liners or doing a multi day trip in the comfortable boats of Alaska Marine Highway System Ferry Service.

We chose to the Inside Passage Cruise from Ketchikan (at the South Eastern end of the Panhandle in Alaska) to Juneau (the capital of Alaska).  Anchorage, our base in Alaska was well connected by flight to both Ketchikan and Juneau to do the ten days trip (including some time in Ketchikan before the cruise and some time in Juneau after the cruise).

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise:  Ketchikan to Juneau

Ketchikan is at the South Eastern end of Alaska.  A small town with 14,000 residents receiving 1 million visitors each year (mostly in the three summer months).  The town has just two streets along the waterfront.  When you land in a cruise ship, you can walk to the town centre in a minute!  The town takes very heavy rainfall and is surrounded by steep and forested terrain.  Tourism and commercial fishing are the mainstay of Ketchikan's economy.

Ketchikan, from air.  Airport across the sea on a different island!

View of Ketchikan from air

Constant inflow of Cruise Ships doing the Alaska Inside Passage is the main source of income

One does not need more than two hours to go around Ketchikan, see what is to be seen, and eat what is on offer.

However, there is one attraction about 65 km away that can keep you hooked for an entire day:  Misty Fjords National Monument.

Misty Fjords is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in the planet.  The fjords are U shaped troughs carved out of granite by glacial movements fifty million years ago.  The fjords are quite deep (300 m to 1,000 m; yes you can go one kilometre down the water!).

The Monument is quite expansive with an area of 2.3 million acres.  You get to see spectacular blue lakes, tall and impressive waterfalls, snow clad mountains, and expansive rain forests.

The best way to reach Misty Fjords is by a sea plane or by a boat.  We took a sea plane.

Seaplane ride over Misty Fjord

Seaplane ride over Misty Fjord

Our pilot landed the sea plane on a gorgeous and calm fjord and gave us time to sit and stare.  Spectacular ambience.

Daughter sits on seaplane's outrigger enjoying the fjord

On the way back, we were treated to snow capped peaks, ice fields, and gorgeous waterfalls.

Misty Fjord:  Snow clad peaks

Misty Fjord: Waterfalls

For the cruise, we chose to sail on a regular scheduled run of an Alaska Marine Highway System Ferry: "Matanuska".  Though it is a scheduled and standard service, the vessel had private cabins (we had the premium one with four berths - our daughters were traveling with us), a stately lounge, sit in restaurant, viewing decks, hot food services, and a solarium!  It was as good as a luxury liner.

We sailed past beautiful fjords surrounded by awesome mountains.

Our first sight of Matanuska as she approached Ketchikan's ferry terminal

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise:  Daughters having a private chat

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

On the fourth day, our vessel dropped us at the Juneau ferry terminal.

We are dropped at Juneau Ferry Terminal

We had to take a cab from the ferry terminal to the city (the car we rented had to be picked up from the city).  The city did not have enough cabs to handle a cruise vessel offloading 240 passengers (the bigger cruise vessels with 5,000+ passengers do not need taxis and use chartered private buses).  We had to wait for over 2 hours to get a cab to do a trip to the city,

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is large by any standards:  8,430 square km (larger than Delaware or Rhode Island and about 20 times as large as Chennai; but mostly ice fields) with a population of just 32,000 people.  Second most populated city in Alaska after Anchorage.

Juneau does not have any roads spreading out of the city to connect with the rest of United States.  In that sense, it is is an island though it is just a coastal town.  The only way you can get into town is by an airplane or by boat.

Juneau is located at sea level on a small strip of land sandwiched between the sea and snow clad mountains.  The mountains rise to steep heights.  Atop the mountains is the Juneau Ice field, a 1,500 mile long ice field fed by over 30 glaciers.

The Mendenhall Glacier is visible from local roads.  This must be the only glacier in the planet you can reach by taking a taxi!

Juneau has a fun attitude.  For $ 15,000 donation received from Mattel, it changed its name to UNO (after the card game) for just one day to boost the popularity of Mattel's product.

Juneau receives 1 million tourists a year.

Juneau Downtown

We drove to the base of Mendenhall Glacier.  One could reach and touch the base if one does not mind the slushy and muddy stepping stones over the waterway.

Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau is home to not just the 32,000 people who reside in town.  It is also the summer home to over 10,000 hump back whales.  Whale watching, therefore, is a big time attraction.

Whale watching:  Our boat is behind our guide

Whale watching:  We had one come close to our boat

Whale watching:  Impressed us with a breach and a dive

View of Juneau Ferry Terminal from our boat

The next day morning, we took a helicopter ride to Juneau ice field.  The copter took us past Mendenhall glacier to the ice field.  The ice field is an unimaginably vast expanse of snow.  With near perfect silence (since there was not a tree or a leaf anywhere within line of sight).  We walked to the dog sled area where sled rides were prepared for the four of us.  The huskies were quite friendly and excited to show us their land.  After a long round on the sleds in an ice cold ambience, when we returned to the base, the native Intuit who ran the sleds asked us whether we would like to have a cup of coffee!  I would have paid with my arm and half my kingdom for one!

Heli ride to Juneau Ice Field: View of Mendenhall Glacier

Atop Juneau Ice Field:  Huskies waiting to take us around

Atop Juneau Ice Field:  Dog sled ride

Atop Juneau Ice Field:  Dog sled ride

After a few fun hours, it was time to return.

Atop Juneau Ice Field:  Our heli flies back to pick us up

Heli ride from Juneau Ice Field:  Herbert Glacier

Heli ride from Juneau Ice Field:  Cleared for landing at Juneau airport

We flew back from Juneau to Anchorage by commercial flight.  After reaching the 300,000 population Anchorage, we felt like we returned from wilderness to a megalopolis!  Quite a different feeling to what we nursed when we arrived into Anchorage from San Francisco just a fortnight back!

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