Published Nov/Dec 2006

Left: Alaska’s combined population of brown and black bears is estimated at 135,000. Alaska Division of Community and Business Development photo

Get close to Alaska’s wildlife, culture and primeval beauty
with Cruise West.
By Sally Moe

came home bursting with souvenirs–decals and magnets, T-shirts and totemic art and jewelry–from my cruise of Alaska’s magnificent Inside Passage. But the one souvenir that means the most to me is a tiny friendship pin adorned with microscopic glass beads and feathery soft eagle down. It came from our tour bus driver in Metlakatla with a handwritten note that read “N’ Dim El Git Nii Zen” (“until we meet again” in Tsimshian).

Metlakatla is an Indian community of Tsimshians, Alaska natives, and is located on Annette Island, 15 miles southwest of Ketchikan.

That’s the thing about Alaska. It’s America–I can come and go as I please without a passport–yet it’s worlds away in its primeval beauty, history and day-to-day rhythms.

Over the water
and through the fjords

Cruise West is devoted to revealing and exploring Alaska’s road-less-taken attractions. Its stylish nimble ship, the 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavour, pursued the mysteries of the Inside Passage, taking us through breathtaking fjords and past massive glaciers, fragrant forests and rugged snow-capped peaks.

We spotted an astonishing variety of wildlife, including humpback and killer whales, harbor seals, bald eagles, brown and black bears, mountain goats, puffins and Rufus hummingbirds. One memorable day, our captain actually backed up the ship so we could follow the path of a foraging black bear. Another day, he steered the ship to the very edge of Hole in the Wall Falls in Tracy Arm fjord so two crew members in waterproof gear could gather a pitcher of glacier water for us to taste.

Watching the Glacier Channel

Exploration leaders gave nightly talks on what we would be seeing the next day by describing the region’s history, culture, geology and wildlife. Those who wanted to relax in their cabins could listen via the intercom.

In preparation for our cruise into Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a national park ranger came on board for the day. He was an impassioned font of information about the massive (3.3 million acres) park in southeast Alaska, its wildlife and geology.

One of the most visited national parks in the state and home to some 11 tidewater glaciers, all of Glacier Bay was under ice a mere 200 years ago. The park’s official map and guide indicates the approximate times when various lands and waters of the park were exposed to the atmosphere. Such rapid glacial retreat is known nowhere else and attracts intense scientific interest.

Bartlett Cove, near the entrance to the park, is carpeted in mature spruce and hemlock. Progressing northward, the vegetation grows increasingly younger until you arrive at the bare earth of the bay’s farthest reaches–its most stunning, otherworldly scenery.

After deftly navigating a sea of floating ice chunks, the captain brought us to a stop in front of two sprawling tidewater glaciers roughly at right angles to each other–Margerie and the Grand Pacific. Here we enjoyed a front-row seat to a spectacular display of calving –huge chunks of ice breaking free and dropping into the bay–which set off a fanfare of waves and thunderous sound effects similar to gunfire.

The small-ship experience

By now, the prime advantages of small-ship cruising, including flexibility and accessibility, should be obvious. But there are still more, such as little or no time spent in line; a gentler impact on the environment and communities visited; and a more informal onboard ambience.

For socializing, the popular choice easily was the lounge. It was a cozy spot for a light breakfast, a game of Scrabble® or cocktail hour, a favorite activity. With tasty hors d’oeuvres and a different featured cocktail every evening, the atmosphere was ideal for building new friendships, sharing the day’s exploits or simply relaxing. And it was during cocktail hour that Irv, our debonair bayou-country chef, would regale us with drawling descriptions of what was coming up for dinner. These dinners became a nightly ritual to savor. Creative cuisine was served at an unhurried pace framed with a passing backdrop of ravishing scenic beauty and animated conversation about the day’s adventures.

But no earthly pleasure can surpass the spectacle of a whale breaching while a late-night sunset flames the snow-capped peaks of Alaska’s Inside Passage. That’s an experience that will linger deep in your heart long past dessert.

Sally Moe is a senior copywriter at AAA Going Places magazine in Tampa, Fla.

Above: Cruise West’s Spirit of Endeavour. Cruise West photo

Before You Go
Cruise West will offer eight-night Alaska Inside Passage cruises from May–September 2007. Passengers can reserve just the cruise or add on visits to Denali National Park and Preserve, Prince William Sound or wilderness lodges.

When not in Alaska, the Spirit of Endeavour cruises the Pacific Northwest in April, September and October.

AAA members receive a $100 per person discount on all seven- to nine-night Cruise West sailings.
For more information, contact your nearest AAA Travel agent. Click here for a list of offices or call 1-888-366-4222.

The best of the Inside Passage

Alaska is comprised of five regions: the Inside Passage, south-central, interior, far north and southwest. The Inside Passage is a favorite cruise ship destination and offers several interesting and diverse ports.

Highlights on the Spirit of Endeavor’s excursions include:

• Skagway, the best-preserved gold rush town in the United States; An optional excursion on the vintage White Pass & Yukon scenic railway is available. Or after an orientation via streetcar, explore the storefronts along the boardwalk.
•The Norwegian fishing village of Petersburg; Enjoy local hospitality and a performance by the Norwegian Leikarring Dancers. Optional walking tours or flightseeing excursions also are available.
• Glacier Bay’s wildlife-rich fjords; Probe the area with expert narration provided by a National Park Service ranger.
• Spectacular Misty Fjords National Monument;
• The twin Sawyer Glaciers at the end of Tracy Arm;
• Majestic bald eagles in Haines;
• Whales frolicking in Frederick Sound;
• Meeting the Tsimshian elders of Metlakatla on Annette Island;
Tsimshian people followed a missionary of the Anglican Church of England, William Duncan, to a new home in the United States from their previous home in British Columbia, Canada. The United States Congress granted recognition to the new community in 1891 by creating the Annette Island Reserve, a federal Indian reservation.

Shaped by glaciers, blessed with abundant wildlife and flavored by native cultures, the Inside Passage is part of Alaska not to be missed.

A striking totem stands guard in Haines. Sally Moe photo

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