In July, we boarded Holland America Cruise Lines' MS Zaandam in Vancouver, B.C. We had decided to take a cruise ship up the inside passage to Alaska's Southeastern coast.
There aren't that many options for traveling the inside passage. If you don't have a private sail boat, crab boat, or freighter, the only options left are the Alaskan Ferry service, or a good cruise ship, to which, Holland America is a great cuise line with exceptional service and value.
Alaska has been hit hard by global warming. Glacier and sea ice is melting at an alarming rate. Tundra is thawing, and the wilife that depend on Alaska's critical habitats are increasingly being threatened.
This all may seem to be a world away from Florida, yet several of the bird species that live in the high arctic during the summer migrate to Florida in the winter.
Alaska's famous inside passage is a protected waterway that has been forged by glacier ice. It provides a great way to sail along the coast without facing the ravages of the North Pacific. That fact has not been lost to the wildlife that live here.
From salmon to mommoth humpback whales, the inside passage is a critical habitat. For millions of birds, the inside passage is part of the great Pacific Flyway, a migratory route that begins in Alaska and extends deep into South America.
Salmon Is King
Sailing into Ketchikan, we stopped at our first port of call. Ketchikan is known for 2 things, rain, and salmon.
With over 200 inches of rain each year, the temporate forests of this region are spectacular. The other ecological engine is the 5 species of salmon that spawn here each year.
The abundance of salmon means that eagles, bears, shorebirds, and a host of other creatures depend on this food resource. As the salmon come up stream for spawning, a seemingly unlimited dinner feast awaits several other species.
With such abundance, bears rarely eat an entire fish. But they are not wasted. Half-eaten fish provide nutrients to the soil in the forest.
As we moved further up the inside passage, our next stop was Juneau. The state capital of Alaska is home to the Mendenhall Glacier, and some of the most incredible whale watching you'll ever see.
Holland America Cruise Lines allowed us to book an excellent whale watching excursion on-line before boarding the Zaandam in Vancouver. That was a great idea, since whale watching is one of the most popular excursions on any cruise ship.
In the winter, humpback whales start their long migration from the waters of Baja California, Central America, and even the Hawiian Islands as they swim to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska.
Some of the most spectacular feeding takes place in these waters. Humpback whales in Alaska are famous for sowing a net of bubbles as they corral baitfish into a tight group.
Once the baitfish are in a tight ball, the humpbacks leap out of the water with mouths wide open catching large quantities of fish with each leaps.
This behaviour is not lost on the sea birds of the area. When the whales are feeding, the spoils go the the gulls and other other seabirds that are bold enough to follow the whales.
The Eagles Have It
After leaving Juneau, we traveled to Skagway. A great historical town that features a railroad from the late 1890's, Skagway was put on the map because of the Alaska gold rush of the late 1890's. Skagway's history was impressive, but we wanted to catch a ferry that would take us to the town of Haines, about 45 minutes away.
Alaska has the largest population of Bald Eagles in the United States, and my wife and I decided to go river rafting on the Chilkat River just outside of the town of Haines. We wanted to see if we could find some of these magnificent birds, and perhaps a grizzly bear or two.
In the fall, salmon migrate up the Chilkat River to reach their spawning grounds. This river is so shallow that the water level may be less than a fooot deep in many places.
While this makes it tough on the salmon, the eagles and the bears know a great sushi bar when they see one. During the fall salmon run, as many as 3 to 4 thousand eagles gather here, making it the largest concentration of Bald Eagles anywhere in the World.
Alaska was, and still is being formed by ice. If there was every any doubt about that fact, one only needs to visit Glacier Bay National Park.
As the Zaandam entered the bay, we were reminded that the waters we were navigating were completely covered in ice only 300 years earlier.
The fiords of Glacier Bay are still forming. The ebb and flow of the glaciers are so dynamic that the park maps actually track the advance and/or retreat of its many glaciers on a year to year basis.
While Glacier Bay is known for its ice, it's also home to over 250 species of birds, and thousands of seals, whales, dall sheep and numerous other species.
The Alaska Railroad
Our final port of call was Seward. We said farewell to the incredible crew of the Zaandam and boarded the Alaska Railroad. We were about to depart for a scenic ride through the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula on our way to Anchorage. The train actually pulled up to the Zaandam, so our luggage was handled by our cruise ship personel, and all we had to do was board our scenic rail cars.
Each rail car had a steward that also acted as a tour guide, so our trip was a facinating adventure in history, ecology, and incredible sight seeing.
Denali National Park
After arriving at Anchorage, several of our cruise ship passengers choose to extend their stay in Alaska with a Holland America land tour to Denali National Park. We were going to the park as well, but we chose to rent a car, and take our own sweet time seeing the sights.
This allowed us to visit several state parks on the way to Denali, as well as a side trip to the town of Talkeetna. This small town about 14 miles off of Highway 3 to Denali is the main staging area for climbers that try to summit Mt. McKinley. From Talkeetna, climbers are flown up to a base camp on a glacier at the base of the mountain where they begin their climb.
Denali National Park is by all accounts spectacular, but in one way, we were very dissapointed. We just didn't have enough time to really take it all in. Visitors are only allowed to take their cars into the first 15 miles of park road. After that, if you want to go deeper into the park, you must take a park bus, or hike into the interior by foot.
The bus tour was really quite good, and we were able to see nine grizzly bears. We also spotted a wolf', dall sheep, red foxes, caribou, and a few mose. As a photographer, a bus tour is a challenge to say the least. And as a videographer, it was all but impossible to get quality footage, and of course, you can't stay for extended periods of time to observe and document an animal.
On the other hand, if you are so inclined, you can leave the bus and walk through the park on your own, but you must follow park rules to the letter in order to lessen the probability of bear encounters.
Besides being a great park for four legged wildlife, Denali is part of the Pacifc Flyway for migratory birds. During certain times of the year, the birding is reported to be great. Of course, you can't overlook Mt. McKinley. At 20,300 feet, it's the tallest peak in North America, and it dominates the landscape.
Another One For The Bucket List
Alaska truly is "the last frontier" and you have to experience Alaska in order to appreciate how special this part of our country is. The ecology of Alaska is diverse and changing by the minute, so don't wait for another season of wishful thinking. We only brushed the surface of this state, and of course, there is so much more to see, but that just means that we'll have to return.
So get into your explorer's mindset and let Alaska take your breath away. You won't regret it for a moment and your bucket list will have a check mark that will bring special memories for the rest of your life.