Alaska’s Inside Passage: Glaciers, Tlingit Culture, and Crab & Salmon

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Imagine seventy-six miles of flowing rivers of ice gushing into the sea forming a 7-mile wide, 600-foot high wall of ice.  Hard to imagine?  Absolutely.  But that’s exactly what you’ll witness at Hubbard Glacier, an amazing natural phenomenon not to be missed if you travel to Alaska’s Inside Passage.

And this was only one day of an incredible voyage, which started and ended in Vancouver, Canada, stopping at Alaska’s Icy Strait Point, Juneau, and Ketchikan.  We toured the Inside Passage for seven days via Celebrity Cruises and experienced an impeccable staff and crew, and several cultural and festive shore excursions. And best of all we lucked out with perfect sailing weather for the entire cruise.

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We set sail for Icy Strait Point on a Sunday.  For a day and a half we cruised the Inside Passage, a spectacular long line of rugged and remote coastal islands comprising fjords, cliffs, snow-covered mountains and rocky capes. At mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Celebrity dropped anchor in Icy Strait Point harbor and we were tendered ashore.  Icy Strait Point does a superb job of showcasing Alaskan Native traditions, in particular, Native American Tlingit history and culture.

Flightseeing over Glacier Bay National Park, whale watching, and Native Tlingit dance performances highlighted the excursions available to cruisers.  Those looking for a little excitement, could opt for the more popular excursion, riding the world’s largest zip-line (5,330 feet)  with a view overlooking Icy Strait and the unspoiled coastal rainforest.  We toured Icy Strait’s 100 year-old historic fish cannery and the adjacent Native Heritage Center displaying Tlingit artifacts.

After a ride back on the ship’s tender, the Celebrity headed for Hubbard Glacier.  Nothing on the trip came close to the beauty of this magnificent glacier.  The temperature dropped quickly to about 35° F, as our cruise ship slowly glided along the Yakutat and Disenchantment bays toward the glacier.  Our captain decided the ship’s proximity to the glacier based on weather, currents, tides, visibility and ice conditions.  According to crew and staff, recent visits to Hubbard Glacier had been disappointing because heavy rain, high winds and colder temperatures made viewing the glacier almost impossible.

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But not the day we visited. We weaved and zigzagged around icebergs of all shapes and sizes.  The glacier nearly blocks the mouth of the Russell Fjord, to the right of the glacier.  As we crawled to approximately a half mile from Hubbard Glacier, we were face to face with North America’s largest tide-water glacier.  The mass of ice was breathtaking, magically growing in size as we approached.  We felt like a speck of sand as we stood on the ship’s deck memorized by Hubbard Glacier’s 600-foot tall wall of blue ice.  Passengers were silent, listening as ice cracked and popped as the glacier slowly moved.  We were fortunate to witness a chunk of 400 to 500 year-old ice break away with a roaring crash into the sea (called calving).  First we saw a spray or mist-like sleet followed by a violent deafening sound when the massive piece of ice fell into the water.  We could have easily stayed hours longer staring at Hubbard Glacier, but it was time to move on and our next stop was Juneau, Alaska’s capital.

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In Juneau, passenger excursions included dog sledding adventures, gold panning and helicopter glacier explorations.  Our excursion took us first to the Chez Alaska Cooking School where the chef demonstrated how to make an Alaskan favorite, zucchini basil wrapped wild Alaska salmon, followed by sautéed strawberries in wine-pepper sauce with vanilla ice cream.  Nothing like a delicious snack before moving on to the Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest.

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The Mendenhall Glacier is quite a bit different than Hubbard Glacier.  While Hubbard Glacier’s river of ice flows for 76 miles down to the sea from its vast ice fields in Mt. Logan and Mt. Hubbard, the Mendenhall Glacier flows 13.5 miles from the Juneau Ice field to Mendenhall Lake.  The Mendenhall Glacier is retreating as opposed to Hubbard Glacier which has continued to advance for about a century.

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To the right of the Mendenhall Glacier is Nuggett Falls, a waterfall that drops in two tiers of 99 feet and 278 feet onto a sandbar in Mendenhall Lake.  If you visit the Mendenhall Glacier and have extra time, the area has several trails worth exploring. In addition, don’t miss the opportunity to touch the Mendenhall Glacier ice in the Visitor Center

Our last stop on our Juneau excursion was a relaxing one as we headed to the Alaskan Brewery for a tour of the facility and the brewery process.  We sampled several of the beers brewed in Juneau, including our favorites, Alaskan Amber beer and Alaskan White Ale.  Unfortunately it’s hard to get Alaskan beers east of Michigan, one more reason for a return trip to Alaska.

Ketchikan, our final stop on the cruise, has been called the totem pole capital of the world.  Thanks to the three tribes of Northwest Coast Indians, including the Tlingit tribe, hand-carved colorful replicas of totem poles decorate the city’s streets and parks.

In Ketchikan, we experienced a wilderness exploration and crab feast along the coast in historic George Inlet Lodge.  The crab feast started with a smoked salmon appetizer, and fresh romaine salad, topped with mandarin oranges and tossed in homemade oriental dressing.  The main course followed with steaming hot Dungeness crab (as much crab, dipped in drawn butter, as you wanted!) and baby red potatoes, followed by a special Alaskan homemade blueberry cheesecake.

A walk around the lodge helped us digest the crab feast and prepare for the next part of our excursion.  A 450-horsepower floatplane skimmed over the inlet next to the lodge, landed lightly in the water and pulled up next to the lodge’s dock.  After five of us piled in, the floatplane soared upward, gliding over mountain ranges.  We witnessed a vast wilderness landscape, including secluded mining towns and remote logging camps before landing on water back near the docks and our ship in Ketchikan.

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When our voyage ended, we had traveled 2,045 nautical miles in seven days.   We discovered the magnificence and the raw natural power of glaciers, tasted Alaskan cuisine, experienced Alaska’s rugged mountain ranges and logging camps from a floatplane, and explored the history and culture of the Tlingit tribe.  Alaska truly is the last frontier.

If You Go:

Getting There:  Alaska cruises generally leave from Vancouver or Seattle and range from seven to fourteen days long.  (Some of the longer cruises originate out of San Francisco.)  Our seven day Celebrity Cruises voyage departed and returned to Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal in downtown Vancouver.  Most Alaska cruises run from May through September.

By Air: Accessible from Vancouver International Airport.   We took a 30 minute shuttle from the airport to the ship terminal in Vancouver.

For More Information:

www.celebritycruises.com

www.icystraitpoint.com

www.juneau.com

www.portshoppingmap.com/juneau-alaska/

www.visit-ketchikan.com

www.portshoppingmap.com/ketchikan-alaska/

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