Reflections while floating amid uninhabited islands and turbulent waters, while experiencing intriguing lifeforms and icy giants that flourish in the majestic ruggedness of Alaska.
Going by ship is an idyllic and privileged way to experience the seclusion found in these mountainous forests on the edge of Canada’s north-west. Our voyage starts from Vancouver, traveling north, behind thousands of densely wooded islands, mostly protected from the ocean, along a decisive inland channel aptly named the Inside Passage. Passing Vancouver Island, we go across Hecate Strait, past Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) then into the spectacular, secluded sounds and straits of southeast coastal Alaska, which borders land locked northern British Columbia. Alaska has been a state of the USA since 1867. Along the journey the ship’s crew navigate us safely through volatile marine hazards, changing tides, swift currents, and treacherous waters of submerged rock ridges. One famous obstacle, Ripple Rock, which once lay in Seymour Narrows, until it was blown apart in 1965, created impassable whirlpools for even small vessels, except for at short times of slack water twice a day.
This coastal part of Alaska is inaccessible by road, with only sparsely inhabited seasonal communities, except for a few year-round established towns. Our ship visits Juneau (the capital), Skagway and Ketchikan. The long cold winters of remoteness and continuous silver days of precipitation discourage all but those with sturdy bones and an enduring spirit to reside here. The upside effect of excess freshwater is its foundation stimulating a diverse rainforest environment of abundant showy growth, stunning waterfalls, and rivers brimming with salmon, feeding a healthy ocean habitat for a multitude of marine species. Summer months at this northerly latitude (near 60 degrees), daylight hours are longer than night, meaning more time for activities in this famous scenic wonderland. The onshore excursions, exposing me to intimate encounters with the wilderness is what attracts me most to Alaska, and I am not disappointed. The weather here is unpredictable, either cool or raining with intermittent glimpses of sunshine, so I have brought appropriate footwear, rain gear and warmer layers to add or remove as needed.
At Skagway, we explore the 100 km long Lynn Canal (Fjord) by speed boat with a destination of going onto a Valley glacier. Along the way we observe the colony of Stellar sea lions lounging at their imposing smooth ‘haul out’ rock where they gather in the hundreds in between eating fish in the sea. Today’s atmosphere is dramatic at times with fluctuating brightness during rainstorms which light up the waters from below with shades of an eerie pale green. Landing at a stony beach, I walk down the plank from our boat, inquisitively eyeing the massive glacier ahead. While it’s still a distance away, perspectives here are tough to judge because there is no comparison, only infinite sky beyond the towering mountains. Trekking overland towards the glacier, we pass through a meadow of pink delicately pedaled Fireweed and occasional clumps of Devil’s Club, a prehistoric looking plant with a thorny stalk and ginormous prickly leaves. It’s remarkable how species adapt to survive here. After a forty-minute hike through dense woods we arrive at canoes, then paddle through frigid waters up to the gravel moraine edge at the foot of the glacier. It’s stunningly massive, larger than I expected, and even though the seasonal snow has long gone, there is a chill in the air. The surface has a hard, dull grey crust, with shapely spikes of remaining ice, like protective armour covering its river of meltwater ‘moulin’ below. Returning to the ship we have an adrenaline rushing encounter, when our small tour boat becomes surrounded by a pod of fifteen-meter Humpback whales. Engine off, we watch in silent awe for twenty minutes while they curiously surface and dive all around us.
Vistas are captivating passing through Icy Strait and into Glacier Bay National Park. The mountains are snow-capped year-round, with Hanging glaciers 4,000 metres up in the high peaks, and steep slopes that slant dramatically down into the sea. The Tidewater glaciers, like Margerie, are particularly fascinating as some tower over 60 metres above the sea and extend out over the water. They appear serene until thunderous rumbling noises rise from inside the glacier, causing eyes to survey, mesmerised, waiting to see exactly where an ice shift is happening along the great wall of ice. Suddenly a massive chunk explodes, splits off, then crashes into the sea. During quiet times I focus through my binoculars, looking for mountain goats on high pathways and occasional grizzly bears scrounging on the beach. Glacier Bay is tremendously impressive with its spectacular scenery and nonstop excitement.
My final shore excursion day in Alaska is at Ketchikan, where many wooden totem poles are still hand carved. I head out by kayak within the Tongass Narrows, invigorated by the wonderful salty sea air, even though it’s pouring rain.
I am encouraged on with each rhythmical splash and gurgle of my paddle, which is balanced by a lift and swing forward on the other side. The secluded islets are intriguing, each one encrusted with dense forest growing right up to the ocean’s edge and at low tide ancient rock striations are exposed, along with numerous types of sea kelp that lay limply on the steep shore. Floating along I’m serenaded by the laughing cackles of white-headed Bald Eagles, some couples connect talons in midair, then cartwheel circles overhead. It’s remarkable how each duo twirls around and around, performing a sky dance spectacle, as if thoroughly content in this magnificent ocean habitat.
Writer and photographer Cynthia Percival as she pursues her adventures in wilderness locations.