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Family adventures north to Alaska.

More than 3,000 islands press close to the coast of North America from Bellingham, Washington, to Haines, Alaska. Between these islands and the mainland is a protected channel known as the Inside Passage. Here, the stormy North Pacific is usually calm, creating a natural highway of water that was plied first by Haida and Tlingit oarsmen and later by Russian explorers and traders, and is now used by merchant and passenger ships. It is, unarguably, one of the world's most magnificent waterways.

There are three ways to see the passage and, thus, southeast Alaska. You can glide through its sapphire blue waters and past its surrounding forested slopes in first-class hotel comfort aboard a cruise ship, or you can fly directly to Juneau, the state capital, in the heart of the passage. But the third way to see the passage is to take a ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway System. Last summer Sunset followed a family of three (a 10-year-old and his parents) who traveled the passage this way. Leaving their car behind, they sailed from port to port, staying as long as they liked in each. In between ports, they watched orcas, humpbacks, and porpoises splashing in the icy passage waters; the eagles and ravens soaring overhead; and the brown bears prowling gravel beaches for fish.

Although they carried their belongings in backpacks, the family did not lack normal creature comforts. They slept in fresh beds nightly (in a stateroom on the ferry) and ate three hearty meals a day. Once ashore, they took myriad side trips: rafting down rivers, flying above glaciers, panning for gold, and learning about the culture of Alaska's Native Americans. In two weeks, they scratched the surface of southeast Alaska--which is saying a lot. (Note: even though Alaska is part of the United States, plan on spending as much to see it as you would on a trip abroad.)


A friend drove the family to the new ferry terminal at the south end of Bellingham. Their compact stateroom aboard the MV Columbia was downright luxurious compared with the lodgings of passengers who had pitched tents on the stern decks or staked a claim on a lounge chair in one of the ship's wide halls. Still, the atmosphere on board was festive, congenial, and somewhat international (many Europeans enjoy visiting Alaska by ferry).

After 36 hours at sea--the longest leg of the trip--the family arrived in Ketchikan just in time for breakfast. A cab ride later, they checked into the Westmark Cape Fox Lodge, where they chowed down on eggs with reindeer sausage and homemade Alaska-size cinnamon rolls.

Ketchikan is known to most people as the place to see totem poles, and for good reason. Our family began their totemic tour of Ketchikan at Saxman Native Village, home to the world's largest collection of totem poles. Then it was on to Totem Bight State Park and Totem Heritage Center, where they saw ancient poles and talked with native craftsmen.


The family's next stop was Wrangell, where they took a charter boat up the Stikine River to see Shakes Glacier (outboards rent for $375 per day, including a pilot). The next day they hiked Wrangell's beaches in search of dozens of prehistoric petroglyphs. At midnight, they caught the MV Malaspina to Petersburg. To reach Petersburg, ferries must pass through the Wrangell Narrows, which is only 300 feet wide at its narrowest point. Colored lights attached to rocks in the narrows' channel guide pilots at night, and are a visual, if somewhat spooky, treat for passengers.

After landing the next morning, the family spent a few hours exploring. The fishing village of Petersburg was settled by Norwegians around the turn of the century, and you can still find reminders of Scandinavian culture in its architecture and eateries. After a few satisfying but wholly unnecessary stops at Margie's and the Homestead Cafe on Nordic Drive for fresh pastries, they caught the ferry for the 10-hour ride to Sitka.

"Sitka is stunning!" is the first entry in this chapter of the family's travel journal. And stunning it is, with snowy peaks rising above the city from the choppy waters around Baranof Island and Saint Michael's Cathedral in the middle of town.

After two nights (not enough) at the Westmark Shee Atika Lodge, our threesome loaded their packs into a cab and rode to the ferry terminal to board the MV Taku for Juneau, the state capital and the largest city in southeast Alaska (population 27,000). As befits its quasi-urban status, Juneau is home to the Alaska State Museum (admission costs $2, students 18 and under free with ID), famous for its Tlingit and Haida artifacts, as well as its icons and other objects from the Russian era.

On the second day of a three-day stay in Juneau, the family took a short hike to nearby Mendenhall Glacier, then boated down the river that flows from it. At Gold Creek, they panned for gold (wisely, the parents kept their day jobs) and attended an all-you-can-eat salmon bake ($21 per person). The next day, they boarded a regularly scheduled plane to Glacier Bay National Park ($284 per-person airfare includes lunch and a boat trip up the west arm of Glacier Bay), where they watched 200-foot walls of ice crack and fall away from the mother glacier and thunder into the pale blue water below.


Nearing the end of their trip, they stopped in Haines, a town of grand white wood-framed houses surrounded by dark forests and jagged snow-covered peaks. The buildings are remnants of the 1903 Fort William H. Seward, and one of them houses a gallery and studio called Alaska Indian Arts. In fact, Haines seemed something of an out-of-the-way mecca for the arts, as the family enjoyed performances by Chilkat dancers and visited the Northern Arts Gallery, which specializes in contemporary "northern" art by "northern" artists. They spent one of their last nights in Alaska at the Captain's Choice Motel, whose driver took them to the dock the following morning to catch the Skagway ferry, the MV Columbia--the same ship that had carried them from Bellingham to Ketchikan.

Along with Dyea (now a ghost town), Skagway marked the rough and wild beginning of the trail to the gold rush country to the north. Once they were checked into the Golden North Hotel, the family hiked the town to see the dozens of beautifully maintained historic 1890s buildings.

Their trip had begun in the modern comfort of a new ferry terminal, only to end 100 years in the past. Or so it felt. Exhausted but happy, they caught a plane to Juneau and from there a jet home to Seattle.

How to navigate the Inside Passage

This summer, the Alaska Marine Highway System marks its 30th anniversary. Although the system operates year-round, boats run extended service June through September, when they sail from Bellingham at 8 P.M. Tuesdays and Fridays.

Book staterooms early because spaces fill up fast. If you can't get a reservation, ask at the ticket desk about getting wait-listed.

If passage from Bellingham is sold out, consider catching a boat in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, or in Juneau. Many passengers go only to those stops, freeing up space on board. For a free ferry schedule listing rates and sailing times, write to the Alaska Marine Highway System at Box 25535, Juneau, Alaska 99802, or call (800) 642-0066.

The AlaskaPass

An AlaskaPass offers travelers access to eight transportation lines in Alaska and Canada. With an AlaskaPass, you can travel from Bellingham up and down the Inside Passage, overland through British Columbia and the Yukon to Fairbanks and Denali National Park Preserve, and out to Kodiak and Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Islands.

Passes are either standard or flexible. With a standard pass, you buy a block of time. The clock starts ticking the first day you board a carrier. An 8-day pass starting in Bellingham costs $499 for adults, $249 for ages 3 through 11; 15-day passes cost $599 and $299; 30-day passes cost $849 and $424. With a flexible pass, you may travel a given number of days within a set period. The 12/21 AlaskaPass Flexible is good for 12 travel days during a three-week period and costs $629, $314 ages 3 through 11. The 21/45 is good for 21 travel days during a 45-day period and costs $899 and $449. With all passes, stateroom travel on the ferry is extra; cost varies from leg to leg. A two-berth stateroom between Bellingham and Ketchikan, for example, costs an extra $153; between Wrangell and Sitka, $47.

Things to know before you go

The most comprehensive source of information on the Inside Passage is the Southeast Alaska Tourism Council (SATC). For information, call (907) 586-5758 or (800) 423-0568 (good in the United States outside Alaska).

Lodgings vary and so do the prices. A double at the Westmark Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan, for example, costs $158 per night. The same thing at the Golden North Hotel in Skagway costs $75. Reservations at hotels throughout southeast Alaska are necessary. Bed-and-breakfast accommodations range from $60 to $80, double occupancy. For a list of B & Bs ($3), call (907) 586-2959.

Tour outfitters range from large operators like TEMSCO, a helicopter charter service with offices throughout southeast Alaska, to Duck and Karen Hess's River Adventures, which runs trips on the Chilkat River near Haines. Most reputable outfitters are members of the local chamber of commerce or visitor center.

Finally, airfare from Skagway to Juneau runs about $70. Airfare between Juneau and Seattle costs about $400.

For further information

Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, 131 Front Street; (800) 770-2200.

Wrangell Chamber of Commerce, 205 Brueger Street; (907) 874-3901.

Petersburg Chamber of Commerce,

corner of First and Fram streets; (907) 772-3646.

The Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau, 330 Harbor Drive; (907) 747-5940.

Juneau Visitor Information Center, 134 Third Street; (907) 586-2201.

Haines Visitor Information Center, corner of Second Avenue and Willard Street; (800) 458-3579.

Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau, City Hall Building; (907) 983-2854.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Lorton, Steven R.
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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