Alaska’s Inside Passage

Whether you arrive on a cruise ship, ferryboat, or even seaplane, travelers to Alaska’s southeastern “panhandle” are rewarded with some of the world’s most extraordinary scenic beauty. The Inside Passage‘s long fjords, snow-capped mountains, and timber-lined slopes are dotted with abundant wildlife and towns of cultural and historical significance.

The beauty of cruising with a small operator like Alaskan Dream Cruises is that you get a chance to get up close and personal with marine animals and experience truly authentic Alaskan communities that few others, even native Alaskans, get a chance to see. Here’s a look into some of the coastal island places we visited, all of which are inaccessible by road.

Ketchikan – This island community of about 13,000 is the first stop along the Inside Passage for many travelers, especially cruisers. The weather here is a lot like Seattle’s, which lies 700 miles to the south (a.k.a. it rains a lot here — 190 inches a year, in fact!). But wet weather shouldn’t stop you from exploring some of Ketchikan’s worthy attractions.

My two boys are particularly fascinated by totem poles, so a visit to the Totem Heritage Center and a tour of the Totem Bright State Historical Park proved quite enjoyable. And since Ketchikan declares itself the “Salmon Capital of the World,” you’ll have no problem chartering a boat to catch some of your own. We teamed up with the kind folks at Knudson Cove Marina who took us out for a 4-hour excursion through Tongass Narrows. Although the salmon run hadn’t officially started, we managed to bring in a modest haul, much to the delight of my boys.

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Because Ketchikan was the last stop of our 8-day cruise, we were fortunate to have an overnight in the town, which allowed us to experience it long after the bigger cruise ships left port. On this particular night, the annual “Only Fools Run at Midnight” 5K run was being held. So, together with the captain and about another half-dozen fools from our ship, we joined the locals in donning costumes (life preservers in our case) and running through the steep-as-San Francisco-streets in the middle of the night.

Misty Fjords National Monument – Another popular activity for visitors to Ketchikan is a trip to the Misty Fjords, sometimes referred to as the “Yosemite of the North” owing to its similar geology and glacier-sculpted cliffs. Lucky for us, we didn’t have to hire a tour company to take us there since the Alaskan Dream was nimble enough to navigate its tight waters. We cruised peacefully past glistening waterfalls and the famous New Eddystone Rock — an unusual remnant of volcanic activity thrust high into the air from a small island near the entrance to the fjords.

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Thorne Bay/Kasaan – Besides its natural beauty, Alaska is also famous for its natural resources, lumber being one of them. Thorne Bay, situated on the corner of Prince of Wales Island, once housed the biggest logging camp in the world. But when the Ketchikan Pulp Company pulled out in 2001, the town’s population shrunk to a few hundred people. As a result, visitors here get a chance to sample everyday life in rural Alaska. It also gave me and the kids a chance to get off the ship and exercise. We cruised around the town and surrounding environs on a mountain bike the captian let us use and then hiked up “Heart Attack Hill,” which afforded us a great view of the harbor.

The nearby village of Kassan is even smaller, with only 50 or so residents. What you’ll find here is the last authentic Haida clan house in Alaska. Guided by a descendent of the native Haida, the half-mile trail to and from the Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House includes eight original totem poles in a beautiful forested setting.

Stay tuned for more on Alaska’s Inside Passage next week.

Follow Rainer’s story on Twitter at @JenssTravel