Skip the Cruise Ship - Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage via Ferry
The email reads, “I got it!” My response is, “Yahoo.” My friend, Peter, made it to Glacier Bay National Park and got my stamp. He took his boat up the Inside Passage. After three trips to Southeast Alaska, two to Glacier Bay - one with Tom, the stamp meets our criteria toward our goal to visit all 60 National Parks. In fact, Glacier Bay is the first Park Tom and I visited together. So, I desperately needed the stamp!
White Thunder is what the Tlingit called it – the incredible noise created when up to 200 feet of ice block crashes into the water. By 1879, glaciers that covered Glacier Bay had retreated 48 miles inland creating its fantastic fjords and inlets now home to abundant life after 4000 years of the little ice age. Established as a National Park in 1980, scientists continue to study the fast glacial retreat. Today, 12 tidewater glaciers calve into the bay - a spectacular sight. The snowcapped, rugged Fairweather Range looms over the show, feeding ice to the glaciers.
The only way to get to Glacier Bay is by boat or plane. Having grown up in Seattle with a ferry fetish, I choose the Columbia – the largest of the fleet - in the Alaska Marine Highway System. The picturesque Inside Passage makes the 58 hour journey north even more appealing.
Day One- Depart Bellingham
Every Friday the Columbia boards – people, cars, and pets - at 6pm at the transportation center in Bellingham Washington. We arrive much earlier on this August day, via scenic and relaxing Amtrak, from Seattle - happily killing time in the Fairhaven Historical District. Just in time for dinner, (this ferry has a dining room in addition to a cafeteria), we check out our little berth (bunks, toilet and shower) which will be our home for the journey, while others pitch their tents on the deck, securing them with duct tape. After dinner we settle in. During the first night, I wake to the ferry rocking as we pass through the only open ocean (Queen Charlotte Sound) on the trip. Although somewhat unsettling, I fall back to sleep.
Day Two-Inside Passage
The first morning, I am anxious to peak out our porthole and see where we are. Our peaceful and relaxing ferry days begin with coffee in our berth followed by breakfast in the cafeteria. No email to check, cell phone to answer or paper to read – we quickly head for the bow. It is the best place on the ferry and we don’t want to miss anything. Nature talks are informative and everyone gets excited about wildlife viewings. Tom is so disappointed; he ran back to the berth when the first Humpback Whale breached right by the ferry. It was awesome!
Time on the deck in the warmish sun – which we are lucky to get on our first trip – is so pleasant. As the ferry cuts through the calm, clear sloggy water, we take in the dense green forests, pristine mountains and the occasional sign of civilization. We know we aren’t on a cruise ship when the public announcement tells passengers to go let their pets out on the car deck. The whole experience is a real escape from everyday life.
As darkness engulfs the ferry – around 9pm – it’s time for cribbage or a movie in the little theatre. The most entertaining movie is an old documentary about the blasting of Ripple Rock in 1958. Following the explosion, ferries and other boats can get through the Seymour Narrows of the Discovery Passage in British Columbia, Canada without all the previous carnage. Our favorite line is, “Ripple Rock is no more!” I guess so, after the largest non-nuclear peacetime explosion in the world.
After dark on the second day, we pass through Wrangell Narrows. Appropriately named, it is barely wide enough for the ferry. Large lights shine from the bridge, to help the Captain navigate the narrow passage. Even in the daylight, which we experienced on another trip, the Narrows are quite an adventure.
Day Three-Stop in Ketchikan
The second morning we have a bit of a jolt with a 7am stop in Ketchikan. After all the fantastic scenery, we wake up and see a town which clearly caters to cruise ships. Jewelry and trinket shops abound. With a couple hours to kill we have fun exploring Old Main Street. Cute shops occupy old whore houses – artist, Ray Troll is a local favorite. Married Man’s Trail is a nice walk; the back way out of the whore houses. Salmon – lots of them - put on quite a show jumping upstream in Ketchikan Creek right in town. The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center is worth the visit. Go Fish Ketchikan out of Knudson Cove is a great place to go sport fishing. It’s run by our friend, the former General Manager of the Glacier Bay Lodge. We enjoyed a few days there on both trips. Captain Joe even treated us to crabbing in remote Helm Bay. Remember to tie a rope to the ring and hang on before you throw it into the water! The Columbia departs at 9am – eight more hours to Juneau.
Day Four-Arrive Glacier Bay via Juneau
Once in Juneau, my favorite way to get to or from Glacier Bay National Park (via nearby Gustavus) is on another ferry. I am probably tainted by the greeting we got from a humpback and her calf as we boarded. And, bouncing around in a four seat plane piloted by a guy in Tevas who we had to wake up when we boarded, over high peaks and open water, is not my comfort zone. My friend, Jana, can attest to that. But, it is an option for others.
Glacier Bay Lodge sits on the shores of Bartlett Cove overlooking the Fairweather Range. It is a 70’s style lodge with some water view rooms and a nice dining room. The National Park Visitor Center is housed upstairs and has a couple movies worth seeing. Although an incredible setting, activity is somewhat limited and there is only one road. The Forest Loop trail is a nice hike; be aware of bears. Kayaking from the Lodge in the Bay – especially with whale sightings - is great. In August it is light until 11pm but the weather is still hit and miss. Tomorrow is the real show!
Day Five – Spectacular Glacier Bay
The only way to get into Glacier Bay, other than via a few cruise ships and kayak, is on the catamaran which departs the Lodge each day in the summer at 7am returning at 3:30pm. Once aboard, signature coffee cups in hand, the trip of a life time begins. Even in August the air is chilly, cooled by the clear cold water and glaciers. The Sitka Spruce forest around the Lodge gradually diminishes as we travel north into the Bay. Bear, bear cubs, frolicking wolf cubs, puffins, seals, and whales are all part of the warm-up show. As we get closer to the massive glaciers in the northwest arm of the Bay, small icebergs appear and get bigger and bigger. The Margerie Glacier comes first. Once at the Grand Pacific Glacier, the big granddaddy, the Captain turns the motor off and we gather on the deck in awe. The massive ice towers nearly 200 feet above the Bay. It has a deep blue color combined with some white and dirt. A cold wind blows off the Glacier. The noise is overwhelming as huge ice chunks break off or calve into the Bay. (On the trip with Tom, we had heartbreak when the Captain announced that the boat lost an engine and we had to turn around right before we made it to the Grand Pacific Glacier!) The ride back seems much longer – no surprise.
Day Six- 737 back to Seattle
We jump on the old bus and ride back to Gustavus. Since 737’s now fly to Seattle that’s how we get home. The 5.5 mile long Dungeness Crab Spit in Sequim Washington is really something to see from the air and so is a submarine.
As our first National Park journey together ends, it is hard to believe that the same rich territory which we covered over many days can be reduced down to a 3 ½ hour flight home. But, there is no question; we deserve the stamp that my friend, Peter, got us!
If you go:
Friends ask us, “Should we ride the ferry going north or south?” Having gone both ways we suggest north.