Will Gray travels to Alaska to discover why, after all the hysteria of the Gold Rush, the pull of the north is as strong as ever
They called it the last grand adventure. In July 1897, the streets of Seattle echoed with the wild cries of “Gold!” and over 100,000 people surged north. The Klondike Gold Rush promised escape and quick wealth during a time of depression and poverty. But to reach the gold fields of the interior the prospectors had to haul their supplies over a 3,000ft mountain pass and raft 500 miles of rapid-strewn river. And all this was only possible once they had voyaged in crowded steamers along the entire length of North America’s vast marine highway – the 1,000-mile Inside Passage.
Today, the lure of the north is as strong as ever. Each summer, dozens of luxury cruise ships slip sedately through the maze of forested islands, probing the inlets, straits and sounds of the Inside Passage from Seattle or Vancouver in the south to the old Alaskan gold rush town of Skagway in the north. They share these convoluted waters with a myriad fishing boats, timber barges, floatplanes and, best of all for the independent traveller, a fleet of public ferries.
My exploration of the Inside Passage began in Port Hardy, Vancouver Island, where I boarded the Queen of the North. An exuberant humpback whale greeted the ferry as we entered Fitz Hugh Sound – breaching repeatedly before wallowing on its back, clapping flippers as we passed. I wondered if it was applauding the scenery.
As the sea becomes pinched into a narrow channel (barely a mile separating mainland from offshore islands), dark forested slopes sweep to the shoreline – waterfalls gleaming from their depths like slivers of bone in the green flesh of mountains. A sharp turn to port, then hard over to starboard: the Queen of the North sensed the ruffled Pacific through a breach in the chain of islands before delving once more into a sheltered corridor. Our progress was slow and deliberate, like a snail following cracks in crazy paving.
“A journey along the Inside Passage is a journey through the world’s largest temperate rainforest,” explained a Forest Service guide onboard the ferry. The Tongass National Forest, just part of this great mantle, covers 17 million acres – an area half the size of England. “There are cedars out there over 1,000 years old and islands with a brown bear for every square mile,” the guide told me. “But it’s not all wilderness.”
Fifteen hours after leaving Port Hardy, the Queen of the North reached Prince Rupert, the northernmost coastal town in British Columbia and the first of several stepping stones on my trip north. While hundreds of RVs, or ‘recreational vehicles’, spilled from the car deck ready to confront America’s Great Outdoors, with everything from freezers and microwaves to satellite televisions, I joined the ranks of disembarking foot passengers and walked to the nearby ferry terminal of the Alaska Marine Highway. The Matanuska is one of five mainline ferries serving the communities dotted throughout Southeast Alaska. “Sea is pretty much the only way to get places,” remarked a local as we boarded the 400-foot vessel, bound for Ketchikan. “Think of this as a bus service.”
The Matanuska was equipped with cabins, lounges, cafeterias, a gift shop and even a solarium where backpackers can unroll a sleeping bag for free during overnight voyages. For exercise, walk eight times around the deck and you’ve gone a mile. For swimming pools or gymnasiums you’d need to jump ship to a cruise liner.
Travelling by ferry along the Inside Passage involves making lots of decisions. On a cruise ship everything is pre-arranged, from your ports of call and how long you will stay at each one to what you eat and where you’ll sleep every night. On the other hand, merely trying to fathom the timetable of the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry system can be enough to reduce the most intrepid traveller to a blubbering wreck. The plus side to independent travel, of course, is freedom – and the constant buzz of not knowing what, or who, lies around the next corner.
Arriving in Ketchikan, I checked in to the youth hostel where I was allocated a sleeping mat between two large, snoring cannery workers. Ketchikan, with a population of around 14,000, is known as the Salmon Capital of the World. The entire place is pervaded by the sweet and not unpleasant odour of freshly processed salmon. One whiff and it takes up permanent residence in your nostrils. Along with the resin-tang of freshly-sawn timber and the occasional waft of oil from the fishing boats, salmon is part of the natural perfume of Southeast Alaska. One of my dormitory companions informed me that I had arrived in Ketchikan at the height of the annual salmon run, when countless millions return from the Pacific to spawn in their native streams. It’s an extraordinary spectacle – a Serengeti of the seas.
The bridge over Ketchikan Creek was packed with frenzied anglers dipping fishing lines into water seething with salmon. It reminded me of that fairground game where you have to hook plastic ducks to win a fluffy toy. I always found it fiendishly difficult, but I would reckon even my chances on the bridge over Ketchikan Creek. Every few seconds, a five- or ten-pounder was hoisted out of the water, and yet upstream of the bridge, the creek still ran thick with fish.
Astride a boardwalk winding along one side of the stream is Creek Street, Ketchikan’s old red light district ‘where the men and the fish came to spawn’. The 30 or so brothels have now been transformed into a colourful collection of gift shops and restaurants. However, when several 2,000-passenger cruise ships dock here, Creek Street’s boardwalk witnesses a gush of tourists almost as dramatic as the salmon run in the stream below.
Petersburg, my next destination, promised a more authentic glimpse of Southeast Alaska. Tucked into one end of the Wrangell Narrows (a 22-mile channel that is only 300 feet wide and 19 feet deep in places), cruise ships are simply too big to call by.
“It’s a real working man’s town,” a fisherman told me as I wandered around the floating pontoons of North Boat Harbor – one of three that dominate Petersburg’s waterfront. He’d been working all season to earn money for college. “Fishing’s been good,” he said. “One of these babies can make a quarter of a million dollars a year if the salmon are good.” He patted the high bows of a salmon troller, one of the hundreds of boats forming a dense thicket of masts, aerials and ropes around us. I knew it was a salmon troller because even in the few days that I had been travelling up the Inside Passage I had become something of a trawler anorak. I could already tell the difference between a halibut schooner, a king crabber and a purse seiner, and if you pushed me I dare say I could have told apart a house-forward tender from a schooner-style tender. It’s all an essential part of mixing with the locals.
But no matter how long you stay in a small Alaskan fishing community like Petersburg there are some things that will always confound you. It is surprising, for example, to find hundreds of cars in this island-bound town which boasts a little under six miles of road. When I mentioned this to a store owner, her mouth dropped open so quickly I feared she may have dislocated her jaw. “But I’ve gotta have my commute each day,” she explained, regarding me with genuine astonishment.
They may be slaves to the automobile, but the inhabitants of Petersburg also seem totally unfazed by the dark forests and current-strafed seas that surround their remote outpost. Even children appear quite unconcerned. ‘Killer whales sometimes swim past our house,’ one girl has written in a display at the local visitor centre. ‘Sometimes you can see moose at the park,’ mentions another. ‘They get their antlers caught up in the swings.’
In Petersburg there is also a frank acceptance of rain – and plenty of it. In his classic Travels in Alaska, John Muir wrote, ‘ I never before saw so much rain fall with so little noise.’ Southeast Alaska receives 15 feet of rain each year (“It’s why we’ve got a rainforest,” people will tell you), but it mostly falls as anything from light drizzle to heavy mist. It had ‘heavy misted’ since I arrived in Petersburg. But somehow it seemed totally fitting. Walking out to Sandy Beach, I heard the mysterious sigh of a humpback whale surfacing in mist-shrouded Frederick Sound. And back at the harbour, I was mesmerised by the forest ghosting in and out of the wisps of cloud strung across Wrangell Narrows; the hum of the salmon canneries and the rattle of winches muted by the damp air. A fisherman called out cheerfully to me: “Might as well go fishing if you’re gonna be wet anyway.”
I left Petersburg during a brief dry spell, the clouds burning back to reveal glacier-clad mountains on the mainland. The ferry trailed an arrow-headed wake across Frederick Sound before turning north into Chatham Strait beneath the imposing ramparts of Baranof Island. Sitka, my next stop, lies on the island’s Pacific coast. To reach it we left the main Inside Passage route and sailed tentatively through Peril Strait – green and red navigation buoys winking at us in the gathering dusk; the ferry canting dramatically as it negotiated the narrow, tortuous waterway.
Of all the towns in Southeast Alaska, Sitka is the most historically fascinating. In 1741, some 50 years before British Naval Captain, George Vancouver, first began exploring and charting the Inside Passage, a Danish navigator called Vitrus Bering made landfall on the Alaskan coast. Bering was employed by the Russian crown and his ‘discovery’ soon had Siberian traders scuttling across the North Pacific. They were enticed not by gold or salmon, but by the valuable pelts of sea otters. By 1808, Sitka (known then as New Archangel) had become the capital of Russian America, an empire forged from the fur trade which extended from the Aleutian Islands to Fort Ross, an outpost north of San Francisco.
The fact that Southeast Alaska teemed with valuable resources was hardly news to the Tlingit people who had inhabited the region centuries before the Russians arrived. In addition to fishing, the Tlingit harvested wood to make houses, canoes and weapons. Not surprisingly, they took exception to Russian claims on their land and, in 1804, tensions between the colonists and the fiercely proud Kiksadi clan finally snapped.
The Battle of Sitka signalled the end of Tlingit resistance and, by the mid-1800s, the Russian-American Company had established Sitka as the ‘Paris of the Pacific.’ But Sitka’s growth in size and wealth would be its downfall. Inevitably, over-hunting led to the virtual extinction of the sea otter; the once-prosperous city began to flounder and in 1867, the Russian Tsar decided to cut his losses and sell up. The United States bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million – about two cents per acre. With gold rush fever yet to seize Alaska, not to mention the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay, it would prove to be one of the greatest real estate bargains of all time.
“It wasn’t their land to sell,” said Bertha Karras, who runs the B&B where I was staying. One of the few full-blooded Tlingit left in Southeast Alaska, Bertha is a member of the eagle clan and her daughter Cathleen is a skilled crafter of traditional Tlingit beadwork. The Sitka National Historical Park, where Cathleen demonstrates her work to tourists, is a bastion of Tlingit heritage. Strolling around the forested park, I found groves of elaborately carved totem poles – soaring columns of cedar chiselled with the enigmatic, staring faces of bears, whales and eagles.
Everywhere I turned in Sitka, history caught my eye – from the Russian Orthodox cathedral with its onion-dome roof and priceless gold icons to the bronze statue of a prospector inscribed with a Robert Service poem: ‘There’s gold and it’s haunting and haunting – it’s luring me on as of old...’
I backtracked from Sitka to Chatham Strait, the Kennicott ferry stammering through storm-tossed seas on its approach to Juneau, Alaska’s capital. Moored along the city’s waterfront were three cruise ships, white and massive like tethered icebergs.
Juneau was founded on an 1880 gold strike, but nowadays it is the ‘white gold’ of nearby glaciers that entices people here. Hiking five miles through a damp forest of hemlock and cedar, I emerged on a rocky bluff overlooking the 12-mile-long tongue of Mendenhall Glacier. Sodden clouds drew veils across the surrounding mountains, but the glacier was vivid blue – as if a gas flame burned from its depths.
To the north-west of Juneau lies Glacier Bay National Park, where a dozen glaciers shed icebergs into the sea – a spectacular finale to most Alaskan cruises, but an expensive side-trip for budget-conscious independent travellers. Fortunately, I learned of a ‘poor man’s Glacier Bay’ to the south of Juneau. Although Tracy Arm Fjord has only two of the so-called ‘tidewater’ glaciers, the cruise aboard a small sightseeing boat to the frozen snouts of these colossal cerulean sculptures is breathtaking.
The last section of the Inside Passage follows the Lynn Canal to Skagway. It was dark when I made the voyage, but out on deck I could feel the ruthless gnawing of the wind and sense the mountains looming either side, silent and impassive as we slipped past. These final 100 miles must have been sombre ones for those bound for the Klondike in the Gold Rush years.
It was 5am when the ferry docked in Skagway. The main street was deserted and it would be a couple of hours before the local hostel opened. I rested my pack in the doorway of the Red Onion Saloon, once Skagway’s most exclusive bordello. As far as I could tell, the sauciest thing on offer nowadays is a Klondike Kate pizza.
Behind the carefully restored facades of its pioneer-age buildings, Skagway thrives on a different kind of gold rush – the kind that flows from luxurious cruise ships each summer. But for all the curio shops selling cuddly huskies and fake nuggets, there is still a ‘frontier feel’ to Skagway. It still marks the end of one of the greatest sea journeys in the world. To my mind, travelling the Inside Passage will always be a grand adventure.
Wen to go: It is no coincidence that the Pacific Coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska is cloaked in lush forest – the region’s climate is generally mild and wet.
Temperatures average 20-30;C in summer, the driest and most popular time to travel. Ferries and accommodation can become heavily booked from June to August, so it is worth considering a visit in May or early September.
Things to do: Port Hardy is an ideal base for whalewatching trips in Johnstone Strait where orcas come in search of salmon during the summer months. From Prince Rupert, an eight-hour ferry trip takes you to the Queen Charlotte Islands, home of the Haida people for the last 8,000 years.
Ketchikan also gives a fascinating glimpse into the culture of Native Americans. The Southeast Alaska Visitor Center provides an excellent introduction to the region, while nearby Saxman Village boasts the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles and a chance to watch modern-day carvers at work.
Ketchikan is a gateway to the Misty Fjords National Monument – over two million acres of rugged, brooding wilderness, perfect for hiking, kayaking or fishing.
At Wrangell you can search for ancient petroglyph rock carvings on the beach or venture by kayak into the mouth of the Stikine River. Petersburg offers respite from cruise ship crowds and a chance to appreciate the workings of a busy Alaskan fishing port.
Facing the open Pacific and built in the shadow of Mount Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano, Sitka’s many historical treasures include the Russian Orthodox St Michael’s Cathedral, Sitka National Historic Park and the Sheldon Jackson Museum (containing one of Alaska’s best collections of indigenous culture). The Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center is also worth a visit.
For outdoor enthusiasts Juneau provides access to some of Southeast Alaska’s most spectacular scenery. You can hike to the Mendenhall Glacier, fly over the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Field, take a boat trip to Tracy Arm Fjord or visit Admiralty Island, ‘Fortress of the Bears.’ Juneau is also the starting point for cruises into Glacier Bay National Park.
More wild sights await visitors to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, near Haines, while Skagway offers a nostalgic and captivating glimpse into the gold rush days. The more adventurous can hike the five-day Chilkoot Trail in the prospectors’ footsteps or ride the White Pass & Yukon scenic railway.