Tongass Narrows is the channel that runs from Mud Bay in the northwest to Dairy in the south east and is the approach your cruise ship will use to arrive in Ketchikan. There are great photo opportunities along the way as lumber yards, picturesque cabins and derelict boats dot the narrow waterway.
We were approaching from the north and as we neared town we passed by this very handsome motor vessel named "Air Snipe". It looked for all the world like it could once have been a military vessel of some sort so once we arrived back home I did a little digging. This vessel had her keel laid down in December 1942 as submarine chaser SC-1068. In 1946 she was transferred to the US Coast Guard as USCGC Air Snipe and in 1948 was sold to Boyer Towing in Ketchikan, Alaska as a towing vessel.
This is just one example of the interesting sights that can be seen during the run in to Ketchikan along the Tongass Narrows.
May 20, 2011 - We slipped under the Lions Gate Bridge very early in the morning and were tied up along side Canada Place by 7:00am. The weather was gorgeous with clear skies and the promise of warm temperatures. It is amazing how quickly seven days pass on a cruise ship. We had great weather, wonderful workshop participants and a crew that really looked after all of our needs. While Jan and I took no ship excursions and simply prowled around our own, we came back to land feeling refreshed and relaxed. We are now looking into a northbound cruise sometime in 2012.
May 18, 2011 - Our stop in Ketchikan was the only day we really saw any rain on our entire cruise. We had anticipated cold, wet weather this early in the year but were treated to warm and sunny instead. It was heavily overcast with light rain as we docked but the rain ended and we remained dry during our entire visit. Once again, having taken in many of the sights in Ketchikan previously, Jan and I explored on our own.
We walked through Tongass Trading Post right on the pier. This is one of three stores, all located in downtown Ketchikan, with the whimsical names of "Tongass 1", "Tongass 2" and "Tongass 3". The store on the pier is filled with souvenirs, hardware goods and a small confectionery. Many cruise passengers make this their last stop on the way back to the ship as the souvenirs are reasonably priced, an extra suitcase can be bought cheap and the bottled water, pop and snacks are better priced than on board.
Downtown Ketchikan is compact enough that it is very easy to walk around. There are probably more jewellery stores per city block here than in any other Alaskan port, but if you manage to walk through town without being distracted, you will soon come to Creek Street, the former red light district built on pilings above the water. This is now the location of restaurants and boutiques in probably one of the prettiest settings in Alaska. The green house to the right is Dolly's House Museum, a throwback to the time when there were numerous "establishments of negotiable affection" along the boardwalk.
Ketchikan Crossing Guard
It's funny that in a town of only 15 000 residents there are crossing guards at many downtown crosswalks. I'm still not certain if this casts aspersions on local drivers or visiting cruise ship passengers, but the help was always appreciated!
May 17, 2011 - Juneau is the capital of Alaska and the only American capital city that you can't actually drive in or out of. The city has a municipal area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island with its eastern edge being the border between Canada and the U.S. It's the only American capital bordering another country and the only US city to have a glacier within its city limits.
There is much to do and see in Juneau, some of which we discussed in an earlier posting. As this was our sixth time in Juneau, we decided to take it easy and do our own walking tour of downtown Juneau. We spent a great deal of time in a little art gallery called Annie Kaill's on Front Street that specialized in local Alaskan artists. They not only had some very unique pieces but they took extra care to wrap and protect our purchases for our trip home. We also discovered the downtown postal outlet on Franklin Street not far from the cruise ship that had boxes and packing supplies for any size item you might want to send home rather than carry with you. We just mailed off a post card (which took about 10 days to reach Vancouver) as we didn't have that much "stuff" to carry home.
Shopping for Shore Excursions
We noticed that a number of our fellow passengers eschewed cruise ship excursions and instead used the dock side kiosks to book their tours. Prices were reasonable and the selection was good. In spite of dire warnings from the cruise industry that the quality of the tours would not be very good or that passengers would not be returned in time for sail away, everyone was on board and happy at the end of the day.
We chose to spend the afternoon on board Millennium to see what it was like to experience the ship while in port. We didn't have to share the ship with many other passengers, so it was a great time to visit the spa or the pools as there was little competition on a port day like this. As we were also teaching our photography workshop on this trip, our stop in Juneau proved to be one of the few days we weren't teaching, but we still needed time to look over our notes and adjust our slide shows based on what we still needed to cover.
We sailed at dusk after a beautiful, sunny day in Juneau - port days don't come much better than this!
May 16, 2011 - This is one of the coldest places in Alaska. The Hubbard Glacier is over 13 km wide and terminates directly into Disenchantment Bay, not far from the small community of Yakutat. Think of Hubbard as one of the world's largest refrigerators, with winds constantly blowing off the face of the glacier out into the bay and directly into oncoming cruise ships. Bring a hat, bring gloves, bring a blanket..... you will get cold out on the open decks - for a while. Something magical happens the closer you get to the face of the glacier (and how close you get depends on the weather and the amount of ice in the water). You will reach a place where the winds pass over the top of the ship and you are left standing on deck in very calm - and if the sun is out - much warmer conditions.
On this voyage we were in for a treat as the Captain opened the forward helipad for us to scamper out on to for our viewing pleasure. It was a bit of a climb up and down steep stairs and through the narrow passageways but the view was well worth it and we shared this space with several hundred of our fellow passengers. Hot chocolate and other libations were available to ensure that no one became too cold and it was a great place to watch our final approach to Hubbard. While we did not get as close as some of our other trips, given how early in the year it was and how much ice was in the water, we still got a great view on a beautiful sunny day.
The Captain brought us in as close as he could, spun the ship around so that port and starboard both had great views and then we eased ourselves back through the ice the same way we approached the glacier in the first place.
May 15, 2011 - We made landfall for the first time on this cruise in Icy Strait Point, just west of the Tlingit community of Hoonah on Chichagof Island. Ship tenders dock here rather than in the town itself and it is a beautiful location that feels like "the real Alaska" that it is marketed to be. There are several buildings near the dock, including an excursion lounge and cafe, a cannery museum, gift shop, restaurant, and native theatre. From here buses take guests on shore excursions or into town to explore. Walking trails follow the ocean shore and meander through the old growth forest.
Last time we were in Icy Strait we went on a bear watching excursion that took us into the muskeg and forest looking for bears. Unfortunately the closest we came to seeing bear was spotting Sitka deer, but the landscape was beautiful and we still enjoyed ourselves immensely. This time we opted to hang out in Icy Strait Point itself and walk the Beach Trail the leads west from the Cannery Museum, along the ocean shore, through forest and under the screaming guests riding the longest zip chair in the world before circling back to where we began.
On the whole, a relaxing way to spend a day exploring Alaska up close and personal!
You can make your Alaskan cruise just a little more special by giving some of the following tips a try:
Pick up a discount coupon book just before you embark your ship for the first time: in the cruise terminal, usually just before you have your embarkation photo taken and then board the ship, there is a portable bookshelf holding discount coupons books you will want to pick up. Each Alaskan port has stores that will give you free or discounted merchandise if you show up with the coupons from the book. Some of the items are tchotchkes, but some, like cheap bottled water or canvas shopping bags, may be of useful as well.
Buy your Mount Roberts Tramway ticket in Juneau once you get there: the price on shore is the same as you will pay on the ship, but you are going to want to see what the weather is like. If it's overcast and raining, the view from the top won't be worth the $24.95/person to get there. Don't worry about finding something else to do. There are many tour operators who have booths set up on the pier so you can book something else right there. In poor weather, consider a bus ride to the Mendenhall Glacier. Not only can you see the glacier even with low cloud cover, but there a number of forest walking trails that are worth exploring (you did pack rain gear with you - didn't you?).
Get a balcony: with the long hours of sunlight and the never ending spectacular scenery, an Alaskan cruise is the one itinerary where you should just go for it and book a balcony. Often the cost of a balcony is only slightly more than an ocean view cabin - and a whole lot more convenient!
Bring binoculars: no doubt about it, Alaska has breathtaking scenery and livestock, but some of it is just so josh darn far away your eyes will need some help. We pack a pair of Canon Image Stabilizing 10 X 30 binoculars which bring great clarity and magnification to an image. The built-in image stabilizer really does dampen most of the shaking you usually experience in binoculars held for an extended period of time. If you want something smaller and easier on your pocketbook, check out something like the 8 X 24 Baush & Lomb binoculars. If you forget to pack any at all, your ship will have lots for sale in their gift shop - for considerably more than on shore of course!
Bring along a camera (and lens) that will provide a great deal of magnification: no matter how much magnification your camera and lens combination offers, the scenery and the livestock will often still be just far enough away that you will wish you had a "longer" lens. Jan travels with a 300mm lens on a 1.6 crop camera giving a field of view of a 480mm lens. I travel with a 200mm lens and a 2X extender on a full frame camera, giving me a field of view of 400mm. Most of the time these are long enough, but we still miss a few shots because wildlife is just too far away.
Consider an orientation tour: explore new ports to get an overview - either a walking tour or a taxi or bus tour will give you a feeling for a community. You can then head off on your own to explore the most interesting parts of a port on your own.
Buy a good book: consider reading books like James A. Michener's Alaska, Pierre Burton's Klondike, or Alaska's Southeast: Touring the Inside Passage. Alaska & Canada's Inside Passage and Tour Guide is a huge map covering most of southeast Alaska from Seattle to Hubbard Glacier that you can use to follow your route through Alaska.
When we first cruised to Alaska this was a question we asked as we wanted to know if we would be near to town or if there was a walk involved. Have no fear, as most Alaskan ports of call are relatively compact, you are likely to be docked close to the action.
If you are off on a shore excursion, the buses will be right at the pier regardless of where your ship ties up. If you want to explore on your own, you likely will not find the walk from the pier to the sights to be long.
Be aware though, on busy days when there are many ships in port, someone will wind up with the short straw and your ship may not have a berth to tie up at. In this case, you will be shuttled to shore on one of the ship's tender boats. Usually your cruise itinerary will tell you if you will be tendered. Regardless, this is a rare occurrence.
For the major ports of call, this is most likely where you will dock if you are on a ship of one of the major cruise lines:
1. Icy Strait Point: you will always be tendered to shore as the cruise ship dock has not been put in yet. The tender ride is 10 - 15 minutes in length.
2. Juneau: has a downtown dock for most cruise lines - while this is at the south end of town, it is also where most of the shopping is. Princess ships tie up five to ten minutes further south at their own dock. There are a couple of shops located adjacent to the dock here as well.
3. Ketchikan: again, there is a downtown dock for all cruise lines. You can literally step off the ship and start shopping. The only exception is if the dock space is all taken and your ship has to tender its passengers to shore.
4. Seward: the docks are at the north end of town and it is a bit of a walk to some of the prime sites such as the Marine Rehabilitation Center. If you don't mind the 20 - 30 minute walk to get to the south end of Seward, the town is still fairly compact. As this is usually the start or end to a cruise, most passengers don't spend much time looking around Seward.
5. Skagway: Princess ships dock at the railway pier at the east side of the harbour. As the name implies, the Yukon Whitepass Railroad line is 30 meters from the gangway. It is about a 10-20 minute walk to town from the ship depending on how fast you are and whether your ship is number 1 or 2 at the dock. Other ships dock to the west of the harbour, have their own railroad service and are a similar distance from town.
6. Sitka: if you are lucky enough to visit Sitka, you will always be tendered to shore as there is no dock capable of handling a cruise ship. The tender ride to shore is about 15 minutes.
7. Vancouver: ships dock either at Canada Place in downtown Vancouver or further east, at the Ballantyne Cruise Terminal. Both are excellent facilities and easy to reach by taxi from the airport or your hotel.
8. Whittier: the ship docks just east of the access tunnel to the town. Shops, such as they are, are a few hundred meters from the dock. This usually isn't a worry as this is a terminus or start to a cruise, not a place that passengers usually spend much time exploring
Jan and I love sail away on any cruise we take. We head for the prow of the ship for the view and the noise. On this particular sailing, the ship was nose in beside Canada Place and we could see much of the Vancouver skyline towering above us. As we have come to expect, the captain leaned on the ship’s massive foghorn and the noise vibrated through ship and passenger alike.
We watched as the lines that held the ship were cast off and we floated away from shore on the start of our Alaskan adventure. Soon we passed under the Lion’s Gate Bridge and set a northwest course to one of the youngest states in the Union.
No wonder so many cruise passengers make this trip every year. Alaska is a land of beauty, wonder and raw history. Every place you turn there is something to take your breath away – whether it’s the snow capped mountains or the price of a latte on your cruise ship. Sea otters, salmon, gold, Russians and Tlingit have all helped create the settlements of southeast Alaska. The ports of call are steeped in history and it is readily accessible to cruise passengers even if they only have a few hours to visit.
Creek Street Ketchikan
Ketchikan:often called the Salmon Capital of the World, Ketchikan is located at the southern extreme of the Alaskan panhandle, and will be either your first port of call or your last. Ships approach Ketchikan along the Tongass Narrows that separates the town from its international airport on Gravina Island. Why isn't there a bridge joining Ketchikan to its airport? Well, funding was set aside for a bridge until someone called it the "Bridge to Nowhere" and now there won't be any bridge at all.
Creek Street is one of the most popular places in Ketchikan to visit.What was once the cannery and red light district of town is now home to gift shops, restaurants, apartments, bed and breakfast establishments, and a cute little 19th century house of ill repute. The suspended wooden boardwalk, running along Ketchikan Creek, offers numerous photo opportunities as both meander from Dock Street to Stedman Street. A funicular runs from the middle of Creek Street up to Cape Fox Lodge where the views are worth the few dollar cost of the ride. Consider walking down "Married Man's Trail" back to Creek Street once you have had a look around.
For those passengers who are avid sport fishermen, Ketchikan may be the place to either book a cruise excursion or talk to one of the many vendors who line the dock to see what fishing trips are available.Other fishermen reserve their fishing trips directly with outfitters using the Internet as a large number of them are now online.
Last Chance Mine, Juneau
Juneau:the capital of Alaska is a playground for the million or so cruise passengers who visit each year. The area has been the traditional fishing grounds of the Tlingit for thousands of years and they had it pretty much to themselves until around 1880 when gold was discovered in the area.Not surprisingly, almost immediately a European settlement sprang up close to where the Princess Cruise ships tie up in Juneau.
We have made it a point of visiting some of the old gold mines in Juneau as they are relatively easy reach with many cruise ships providing tours to the Gastineau Mill (including an underground tour) and Gold Creek where you can try your hand panning for gold.While I have tried on several occasions to recoup the cost of our cruise through the search for gold in Juneau, I can report that there will be lots of gold left for you as I have taken none out of the ground myself.
Don’t just think about looking for gold with the usual ship tours.Juneau is one of those ports where the pier looks like a Moroccan Bazaar with tour operators and taxi drivers ready to trade hard currency for tours to just about anywhere.Jan and I have taken taxi tours and even rented our own car while in Juneau and have explored places where cruise tours simply don’t go.As an example, you might want to inquire whether any of the taxi drivers will take you to the Last Chance Mining Museum which is a little way off the beaten trail.
The Last Chance Mining Museum, above the town and off Perseverance Trail, will reward you with a look at an historic mine while not having to jostle with large numbers of tourists.The museum is located in an old compressor building that was part of the Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company that operated from 1912 until 1944. One of the world's largest air compressors is still located at the museum as well as examples of machinery used for gold mining. There are also locomotives and rail cars used to move men or ore.
You will need to take a short walk down a trail that connects the parking lot to the mine.As the museum is not always open, you will want to call ahead at 907-586-5338
Icy Strait Point
Icy Strait Point: the first time we arrived at Icy Strait Point it was overcast and very humid. There wasn't a sound as the ship glided to a stop just off shore from the converted cannery dock that served as the terminus for the tender run to shore. Smoke from house chimneys hung in the air and curled around the high hills to blend with the low slung clouds. Icy Strait claims to offer the "Real Alaska" adventure, and it appeared to have the perfect setting to fulfill that promise.
Icy Strait Point is a few miles down the road from the town on Hoonah where cruise ships tender their guests to. With no more than one ship calling here each day, it is possible to get a relaxed and uncrowded look at the community and surrounding countryside.Passengers have their choice of exploring Icy Strait Point itself with a museum, gift shop and cultural displays or going into Hoonah to look around or take shore excursions further afield.
Excursions can be quite exotic and include bear watching expeditions.Our bear watching excursion took us through town and into an incredibly beautiful wilderness.I have to report, given the wildlife that Jan and I saw, bears near Icy Strait Point look remarkably like Sitka Deer and not at all what you might expect.In spite of the disappointment of not really seeing bears, just experiencing in the wilderness was worth being on this excursion.
For such a small community, the native corporation has provided visitors with many things to do that meet all activity levels and interests. It is quiet enough here that a short walk down any hiking trail will leave you with the feeling that you are all alone in the forest. There is so little boat traffic that whales surface and dive a few yards away for the pier. If you are lucky enough to be on an itinerary that stops here, you will appreciate how close nature is to you.
Skagway: perched at the north end of the Lynn Canal, came into existence in 1887 when William “Billy” Moore and his son became the first European settlers to claim a homestead in an area where the Tlingit people had lived and hunted since prehistoric times. Skagway, or Skaguay, has been translated from the Tlingit language to mean “a windy place with white caps on the water” or “Home of the north wind”, or as several locals like to suggest “cold place where crazy Europeans live”.
We have found that for a small town there are many things to do in and around Skagway.By far the most popular is a train ride that follows the route gold prospectors took to reach the Klondike.You can board the White Pass Yukon Railway near your ship and take a journey that will take you back to the turn of the last century when the line was first opened.
The railway, not surprisingly given its name, follows the White Pass, one of the two routes that miners followed into the Klondike.While riding up the pass, think of these hardy souls who had to move one ton of supplies up to the Canadian border before the Northwest Mounted Police would allow them into the country.Don’t worry which side of the coach you sit on.The train runs up the pass and then, without turning around, backs down again.Passengers with an “inside” view on the upward run trade seats at the top so that everyone gets an “outside” view of the pass.
Upon returning to town, and if you have the time, consider enjoying another piece of history by taking a Skagway street car tour in vehicles that were the original touring cars in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
Sea Otters Hanging Out Together
Sitka: located on the west side of Baranof Island and protected by its own archipelago, this community of 9,000 is located in an area where the Tlingit people have lived for tens of thousands of years. Russians settled in Sitka (then known as New Archangel) in 1799 to pursue the lucrative sea otter fur trade and Sitka became the capital of Russian America in 1808.
The Sea Otters that brought the Russians to this part of Alaska have returned from the brink of extinction and live in large numbers in the Sitka archipelago.If you want to see these mammals in any number, Sitka is the place to book an excursion with a company like Allen Marine which operates cruise and independent excursions that go out into the archipelago to look for seals, sea lions, whales and huge rafts of sea otters just floating about in the water.
On land, Sitka displays its Russian heritage in many ways, the most predominant of which is Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral at the intersection of Lincoln and Matsoutoff Streets; and by intersection, I don't mean on one of the corners, but right in the middle of the street. As you drive by, remember to make that right-hand turn at the proper time or you will in inside the church! The church was built in 1848 and rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1966.
In Sitka you can choose to walk around the community or head out on a marine excursion, but whatever you choice, Sitka remains a fascinating port of call in Alaska.
Whether you are looking for fish, gold or furs, Alaska history is on display in any of the ports you visit.Take a moment and you just might be drawn back to another time long before large white cruise ships easily plied Alaska waters.
We will be visiting most of these ports on our upcoming photo seminar on-board Celebrity Millennium. Join us for a great vacation where you can explore Alaska and learn more about photography at the same time.
Alaska is a land of beauty and wonder. Every place you turn there is something to take your breath away - whether it is a snow capped mountain or the price of a latte on your cruise ship. Friends and family who are about to cruise to Alaska for the first time often ask what are the things they shouldn't miss on their trip. Trouble is, with literally a thousand experiences to be had, it's difficult to choose, but choose we have done. Don't expect the usual tours and trips that you are likely to encounter, instead this is a very personal top ten list of things to see and photography between Ketchikan in the south and Hubbard Glacier in the north.
You will notice that this is a list of land and sea photo opportunities. It's not that flightseeing isn't spectacular, but I have never taken one and have no experiences to report on. As someone who has lived in the north, I don't fly in small planes with pilots I haven't known for years - it's just a thing I have.
1. Totem Bight State Park,Ketchikan: beginning in 1938, a collection of totem poles has grown on this beautiful spit of land overlooking the Tongass Narrows. Today there are 14 totem poles stand here along with a traditional Tlingit clanhouse. Given the beautiful setting and wonderful native artifacts, it's a place to happily spend a few hours. As a bonus, the Potlatch Totem Park is within easy walking distance and displays modern totem poles and other Tlingit buildings carved by local artisans working on the site. 2. Creek Street Historic District, Ketchikan: what was once the red light district of town is now home to shops, restaurants, apartments and bed and breakfast establishments. The boardwalk, running along Ketchikan Street, offers numerous photo opportunities as both meander from Dock to Stedman Streets. A funicular runs from about the middle of Creek Street up to Cape Fox Lodge where the views are worth the few dollar cost of the ride. Consider walking down "Married Men's Trail" back to Creek Street once you have had a look around. 3. Whale Watching, Juneau: while there are several ports where you can go whale watching, the tours leaving out of Auke Bay in Juneau usually spot whales somewhere in their travels. In addition, there will always be sea lions hauled out on a navigation buoy that the tour ship passes by. Most tour boats also stop in front of Point Retreat Lighthouse which has been recently restored by the Alaska Lighthouse Association. 4. Mendenhall Glacier Hiking Trail, Juneau: for those who want to strike out on their own, taking the Blue MGT shuttle bus from the cruise dock to the Mendenhall Glacer means you have time to explore on your own. Eschew the paved tourist trails and head off on the East Glacier Trail Loop (2 - 3hrs) which winds through old growth forest and past waterfalls and streams. The West Glacier Trail Loop (2 - 5hrs) will take you right up to the face of the glacier. Return to port on the same MGT shuttle you came out on. 5. Ship Registry, Skagway: on the eastern side of the Railway Dock in Skagway there are paintings of ship crests and names commemorating the first arrival of ships to Skagway as far back as 1917. Once you have ridden the railway to the Yukon or explored downtown Skagway, take a few minutes to check out this impressive artwork on the cliff face. 6. Sea Otter Rafts, Sitka: for a small port, there is a great deal to do in Sitka. This is the place to take a marine tour if you want to see large numbers of sea otters floating together in rafts. Chances are you will also see sea lions, seals and perhaps some whales as well. 7. Totem Poles in Sitka National Historic Park, Sitka: fifteen totem poles are displayed in old growth forest around the park visitors' centre. The paths are level and clear making this park easy to explore. There is a visitor center where various artists practice wood carving that tourists can watch. As walk through the park will also take you to the Alaska Raptor Center to see a diverse collection of captive and recovering raptors from around North America. 8. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve: it takes most of the day to make the stately run in from the mouth of Glacier Bay to the Grand Pacific Glacier at the north end of the park. With the Margerie Glacier right next to the Grand Pacific, ships stop and slowly rotate for an hour or so for passengers to view the two large cliffs of ice. On the way out, many ships make a side trip to view Lamplugh Glacier for a few minutes. Marine mammals can often to seen along the way with harbor seals near the glaciers and whales near the entrance to the bay. 9. Hubbard Glacier, Yakutat Bay: Yakutat Bay is home to the Hubbard Glacier which is about 30 miles past the entrance to the bay. Hubbard is three miles wide, so you better start taking pictures early if you want to get all of this glacier in! Hubbard is so large that it creates its own weather with a cold wind blowing off the ice until you are almost in front of the glacier. Cruise captains, while always erring on the side of caution, like to boast to other captains about how close they were able to get their ship to the glacier. Hope for clear water with very little floating ice if you expect to get in close! 10. Tidal walks, Icy Strait Point: Icy Strait Point promises you the "Real Alaskan Experience" and as you arrive on shore via your ship's tender, you will see that you are not in a city port. Heading out behind the Cannery Museum the clearly marked hiking trails will lead you into the rain forest and along the shore where the clear ocean water reveals an abundance of sea life just off shore.
This post is open for comments so feel free to add other "must sees" or challenge my choices.