June 18, 2024

The Grandeur of Alaska

The author on HAL’s Zuiderdam in Alaska.

In our experience, there’s no better way to explore the grandeur of Alaska than from the deck of a cruiseship. The spectacular coastline, like a massive work of art, is best viewed from a distance and that is where the deck of a cruise ship comes in so handy. Each cruise, I am reminded just how beautiful this part of the world can be. Case in point was our recent trip aboard Holland America’s Zuiderdam for one of the last voyages of the 2012 Alaska season sailing a round trip out of Vancouver.

While various combinations of cruise and cruisetour packages are available from each cruise line, we prefer the convenience of a roundtrip cruise, boarding and leaving the ship from the same port. This means unpacking once and then sitting back to relax, looking forward to a week with no decisions other than what to have for dinner – always difficult with so many choices. Other cruise enthusiasts prefer one-way cruises so they can extend their vacation by travelling inland on a cruisetour. Whatever your taste, there’s a cruise plan that is sure to satisfy.

Holland America Line (HAL) as well as Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, NCL, Oceania, Princess, and Royal Caribbean all offer seven-day roundtrip cruises to SE Alaska sailing out of Vancouver and/or Seattle. Princess also offers a ten-day roundtrip cruise out of San Francisco.

Alaska is a land steeped in Gold Rush glory set against a backdrop of pristine natural beauty. Purchased from Russia by the United States in1867 for $7.2 million, Alaska is the largest American state in area, over twice the size of Texas. There are no officially defined borders within Alaska, but there are six widely accepted regions, two of which are extremely popular as cruise destinations.

South Central Alaska is the most populous of the regions. It’s home to the State’s largest city of Anchorage, which serves as a hub for visitors with an international airport and two nearby cruise ports at Whittier and Seward. From Anchorage, cruisers can also travel inland, by road or rail, on escorted tours to various wilderness areas and stay at luxury lodges owned by the cruise lines.

Southeast Alaska, commonly referred to as the Panhandle or the Inside Passage, is the area closest to the rest of the United States. The Alexander Archipelago and TongassNational Forest, the largest national forest in the USA, dominate this region. Alaska’s most famous attraction, Glacier Bay National Park, is found here, as is the state capital of Juneau. Alaska’s original capital, Sitka, along with Ketchikan and the former gold rush town of Skagway are also located in SE Alaska. Skagway, Haines and Hyder are the only coastal communities in the Panhandle connected to the North American road system.

The captain of the Zuiderdam gave his passengers lots of time to enjoy the views of Margerie Glacier.

The destination for our cruise was the Panhandle and we eagerly looked forward to visiting the historically rich communities and of course, Glacier Bay National Park.

The pristine waters and stunning wilderness of Southeast Alaska have to be experienced to be truly appreciated. Whales, salmon, birdlife and all manner of marine life abound. The small, resource-based communities that dot the coastline cling to small margins of land between the sea and the magnificent mountains, their presence barely perceptible in the grandness of the entire area.

Each community Zuiderdam visited on our cruise proved unique in character as each has played its own important role in the development of the State’s vibrant economy. Shore excursions, available for purchase from the ship, or a leisurely stroll through some towns, give visitors an insight into the exciting past of these communities and the character of the hardy,adventurous people who took this land on, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. At the very heart of each community is the ferry dock of the Alaska Marine Highway System – a state-owned ferry system that connects all of the coastal communities to each other as well as to the “Lower 48” via Prince Rupert, BC and Bellingham, WA. As intriguing as these communities are, however, the highlight of this cruise for us was the iconic Glacier Bay National Park.

In 1680, Glacier Bay did not exist. At that time, it was a broad grassy valley coursing with salmon-rich streams and scattered forests and was the ancestral home of the Hoonah Tlingit people who harvested the salmon, halibut, seals and berries needed to sustain them through the long winters. Looming in the background was a huge glacier that would soon change this idyllic landscape forever.

By 1750 the Tlingit’s valley of resources was gone, replaced by a massive river of ice some 100 miles long and thousands of feet deep. What is referred to geologically as the ‘Little Ice Age’ was at its peak and glacial ice extended into Icy Strait. When Captain George Vancouver visited the area 45 years later, the glacier, which had gouged what we today know as Glacier Bay out of the previous valley, had retreated 5 miles into the bay and was an impressive two miles wide and 4,000 feet thick.

Naturalist/conservationist John Muir canoed the area in 1879 and could travel 40 miles into Glacier Bay. He determined that the glacier was receding at about a mile a year. He was so enchanted by the region that he wrote extensively about it and his works transformed the image of Alaska as a cold, daunting place to one of enchanting beauty and popularized the area for tourists who began visiting by ship. Ecologist William Cooper arrived after Muir and he studied Glacier Bay and its wonders for decades while fighting hard to have it designated a protected area. Cooper’s efforts paid off in 1925 when Glacier Bay was designated a national monument, receiving national park status 55 years later. Today, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve comprise 3.3 millionacres and are part of a 25-million-acre UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site – one of the world’s largest protected natural areas.

As Zuiderdam slipped silently into the cathedral-like setting of Glacier Bay, the outside decks were crowded with enthusiastic onlookers. Sea birds greeted us as we stopped briefly near the entrance to take on board aNational Park Ranger who would provide an informative narrative throughout the day. Mid-way to the spectacular Margerie Glacier, which is located near the head of the bay, the ship began to encounter telltale icebergs that were harbingers of the sights to come. Margerie Glacier is situated at Mile 63 of the 65-mile-long fjord and is about one mile wide, extending 21 miles to its source at the base of Mount Root on the Alaska-Canada border. The glacier has a total height of 350 feet, 250 feet of which is beneath the water.

Another HAL ship departs Glacier Bay.

Named for the French geographer and geologist Emmanuel de Margerie, who visited Glacier Bay in 1913, the glacier is very popular with cruise ships due largely to the steep drop-off at its face that allows the ships to give passengers a close-up view of the glacier. It is also cleaner than others in the bay and is the most active for calving (discharging its ice into the water). During our visit the ship’s master, Captain Emiel De Vries, skillfully maneuvered Zuiderdam as close as possible to the glacier and then used the ship’s sophisticated navigation systems to hold it in position for about half an hour. This gave passengers plenty of time to observe the awesome magnificence of the jagged and twisted blocks of ice that form intriguing cave-like structures. These structures can collapse at any second with sharp rifle-like cracks known as “ice thunder” and can cause great turbulence in the sea if the ice falls completely away. As the glacier calves, krill and small fish are disturbed, making them excellent targets as food for birds, whales and bears.

No one seemed ready to leave these awesome sights as Zuiderdam turned her bows away from Margerie Glacier and began the 65-mile journey back to the mouth of Glacier Bay. At 1530 hours, the park ranger disembarked and the journey into one of the most amazing biospheres on the planet was over. Ketchikan would be our next and final stop in Alaska after which the only thing left to do was begin planning a return trip. Alaska is indisputably a destination where one could spend a lifetime of cruising and still make new discoveries on every voyage.