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Alaska - Inside Passage Nature & Scenic Tour


Spectacular mountains, glaciers, river valleys, and water falls.

Whales, orcas, seals, sea lions, bears, mountain goats, and eagles.

MapQuest logo

Map of Alaska

Alaska: The Capital Juneau is south of Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada and Russia is shown protruding from the west.


Glacier in Taku River Valley.

   

White  water rafting.

Glacier in Taku River Valley viewed from floatplane.

   

Rebecca & Sunny (in front) white water rafting.

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Foreward

I studied about mountains, glaciers, fjords and other geological phenomena when I was earning my Ph.D. in geophysics at Columbia University. It is a real thrill to see them first hand, and you can do that in Alaska. A summary of our adventure follows.

Alaska - The Inside Passage

Based on my research of Alaska I had high expectations of what I would find when I got there. My high expectations were greatly exceeded. This is a marvelous place with stunning beauty and abudant wildlife. Most of Alaska, as well as Fairbanks and Anchorage, are located west of the Yukon Territory, Canada. However, many people are surprised when first looking at a map to find out how far south Alaska extends. The Inside Passage is found in the southeast part of the state west of British Columbia, Canada. This is also where the Capitol City Juneau is found. Because of the high latitude there are many hours of daylight during the summer.

Juneau

We began our tour in Juneau. We had gone there two days prior to the cruise so that we would have more time to check things out. You arrive in Juneau either by air or ship. It is impossible to drive into Juneau since roads cannot reach there.

Juneau is a charming place. A good way to see it is to buy an all day pass for the trolley. This permits you to hop on and off as often as you want as the trolley continues its rounds. We took the free tour of the capitol building and among other things found out that Alaskan Eskimos never lived in igloos. The Alaska State Museum contains impressive exhibits of Alaskan history, culture, and wildlife. The US Forest Service has nice displays of Alaska's foliage and wildlife. You can also see videos. From Juneau's waterfront district you can take the Mount Roberts Tramway to the top of the mountain. At the top you will find a restaurant, trails, and on a clear day good views of the surrounding area. In addition, in Juneau there are many interesting shops along the water or the nearby streets.

To get a better view of the landscape we took a three-hour floatplane tour from Juneau to the Taku Lodge and back. The view from above was magnificent as we passed over the Taku River Valley surrounded by beautiful snow peaked mountains. It was possible to see five glaciers, and these are fascinating sights. At the lodge we were fed a salmon dinner and then taken on a nature trail walk.

Another pleasant excursion from Juneau is to go river rafting. We were taken to the Mendenhall Glacier decked out in waterproof gear, which was provided. From the raft we got a good close-up view of the glacier; then we proceeded across the lake and into the Mendenhall River where we floated down river. There were a few places where we encountered moderate rapids such as can be seen in the picture above. It was a fun trip. Pictured behind us are Rebecca's cousin Betty and her husband Bob. Also joining us on the cruise were Rebecca's mother Iris and Betty's mother Ruth. A cruise is a great way for a family to vacation together.

Totem

   

Wilderness Discoverer.

Totem in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

   

The Small Ship M/V Wilderness Discoverer.

M/V Wilderness Discoverer

We were excited to board the Small Ship the M/V Wilderness Discoverer as we were expecting to see a lot of beautiful scenery and wildlife. The focus of this cruise was nature. Because the ship was small compared to the big cruise ships we could go places they could not navigate. There were two naturalists on board at all times, and a third one joined us for the cruise in Glacier Bay. The total number of passengers was about 75, and the atmosphere was very informal. There were no formal nights on this cruise. From time to time there were lectures on what we had seen or could expect to see. We were also told about the history of Alaska and the cities we would visit. When wildlife was spotted an announcement was made so that we could all race to get a view and to take photographs or videos. Some of us decided to hang out on the upper deck as much as possible for fear we might miss something if we left. What excitement!

Tracy Arm Fjord

We headed south from Juneau through the Inside Passage for the Tracy Arm Fjord. A fjord (fiord) is a narrow inlet between steep mountains, and they are often U-shaped. The movement of glaciers carved them, and they are filled with water because of the rise of sea level that resulted from the melting of ice following the last ice age. In the Tracy Arm Fjord we encountered numerous icebergs which were created by the calving (chunks of ice breaking off) of the nearby Sawyer Glaciers. Upon many of the icebergs there were harbor seals resting. A mother and her pubs are pictured below. Throughout the day there were many sightings of birds; our naturalists spotted arctic terns, glaucous winged gulls, mew gulls, pigeon guillemots, and surf scoters. Attractive waterfalls were seen on the very steep slopes of the gorgeous mountains. Upon entering Stephens Passage we encountered humpback whales. The sighting of whales is always very exciting, and a highlight of the day.

Eagle at Raptor Center.

   

Seals on iceberg.

Eagle at Raptor Rehabilitation Center, Sitka.

   

Mother seal with pubs on iceberg.

Sitka

Sitka is on the West Coast of the Baranof Island near the Pacific Ocean, and is a fascinating place with a lot of interesting history. The first Russian governor of Alaska, Alexander Baranov, moved his headquarters there in 1804. In 1867 the formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States took place at Sitka, and it was the territorial capital until 1900. Sitka is also the ancestral home of the Tlingit Indians. Due to a warm Pacific Ocean Current the residents enjoy warmer than usual winter temperatures for their latitude.

We arrived in Sitka after a trip thorough beautiful scenery. The Captain navigated the ship through the Peril Strait, the Sergius Narrows, and docked in Thomson Harbor. While in Sitka we saw a Tlingit dance performance and visited the Sitka National Historic Park.

There are numerous eagles in Sitka, and close to the harbor we saw so many eagles perched in a tree that their white heads appeared as tree decorations. They were waiting for food in the nearby water. Birds of prey are called raptors. In addition to eagles raptors include hawks and owls. They have sharp curved claws for seizing their prey. These birds are lucky if they are injured or become ill in Sitka, because they are taken to the Alaskan Raptor Rehabilitation Center to be nursed back to health. This is a great place to visit which we enjoyed immensely.

After leaving Sitka we headed back through the Sergius Narrows and the Peril Strait. As we cruised out of the Peril Strait at dusk we encountered a pack of orcas (killer whales). They put on such an incredible show surfacing and leaping out of the water that for me this was a highlight of our cruise. The Captain was able to maneuver our small ship so as to stay with the pack. What a wonderful time we were having.

Humpback whales.

   

Orca (killer whales).

Humpback whales blowing water in Glacier Bay.

   

Orca (killer whale) in Glacier Bay.

Glacier Bay

A park ranger joined us for our day in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. To see this park you must go by water. There is much wildlife to be seen in the water, on the islands, and along the shore. Add also the magnificent mountain views and glaciers and you know that you are in nature's paradise.

On South Marble Island we saw many sea lions which are pictured below. There were a number of birds and our guides identified Cormorants, pigeon guillemots, surf scoters, common murres, a black oyster catcher, and tufted puffins. Near the island we saw humpback whales. In the picture above they can be seen blowing water in the air. Notice also the tail of one of the humpback whales. Later in the day we observed Orcas in Glacier Bay. One is pictured above.

It is interesting to note the vast difference between Humpback whales and Orcas. Humpback whales are baleen whales, i.e., they have no teeth. When eating they filter their food through seawater and their comb-like rows of baleen plates. In Glacier Bay their food source is krill and small schooling fish. Orcas are toothed whales, and their diet includes fish, sea lions, seals, and sharks. Orcas are easily identified by their triangular dorsal fin as well as the black and white markings on their bodies.

On the ledges in the Mountains above we saw mountain goats. How do they walk there without falling off? On the shore we saw brown bears; a mother and her two cubs were looking for food at the waters edge.

You see many glaciers in Alaska. They are formed by the compaction of snow, are limited in width, and move downslope due to gravity. If the snout of the glacier extends into tidal water it is called a tidewater glacier. As glaciers advance they pick up and grind up rock debris, and at the front of many glaciers the accumulation of rock material, called terminal moraine, is evident. In Alaska there are both advancing glaciers and retreating glaciers. In fact, in the late 1700s Glacier Bay was nearly covered by an ice sheet. For the most part the ice has been retreating ever since. At present the Grand Pacific Glacier and the Margerie Glacier are joined together and are blocking the upper end of Glacier Bay. The Grand Pacific Glacier is pictured below.

At the end of the day we docked at the Glacier Bay Lodge. After seeing a slide show on wildlife at the Lodge we took a walk on a nature trail before heading back to the ship. The walk was a nice way to end this very special day.

Sea Lions in Glacier Bay.

   

Grand Pacific Glacier & ship.

Sea Lions on South Marble Island in Glacier Bay.

   

Grand Pacific Glacier (with rock debris) dwarfs ship.

Skagway

Cruising down Lynn Canal the sharply peaked snow capped mountains were very impressive. Prior to reaching Skagway we passed the Eldred Rock Lighthouse, which is pictured below. Skagway was established in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush days. Most of the downtown area is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. You can visit the old false front stores and saloons, and spend hours shopping there.

White Pass & Yukon Train Route

We boarded the White Pass Train at the White Pass & Yukon Railroad Station in Skagway for the trip to the White Pass Summit. The summit is at an elevation of 2885 ft (879 m), and the train ride takes three hours to go up and come back. This is a narrow gauge railroad with the tracks being only 3 ft (0.305 m) apart. The advantage of the narrow gauge railroad is that the road bed is only 10 ft (3.05 m) wide instead of the normal 15 ft (4.6 m). That means less rock has to be blasted. Also, the narrow gauge railroad can make sharper turns than with a standard gauge track to better follow the mountain curves. There are many beautiful views of the mountains and valleys along the route. Note the picture below.

After returning to the ship we headed back to Juneau. The cruise had come to an end, but our memories will last a life time.

Eldred Rock Lighthouse.

   

White Pass Train.

Eldred Rock Lighthouse near Skagway.

   

White Pass Train ride near Skagway.

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All photos except rafting by Sunny Breeding. Rafting picture by an anonymous photographer. We sell prints and images.