Pining for the fjords: Explore Southeast Alaska with a cruise

Part two: the highlights of Alaska’s ports of call

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Totem pole critter

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Totem pole critter

Darin Lietz
Seattle, Wash.

Last week, I began making a case for why you should take one of the major cruise lines through the Inside Passage to the Alaskan Panhandle. I highlighted the beauty and adventures awaiting you among the fjords and glaciers, but there’s a parallel journey of discovery to be had on the very same voyage, and it’s waiting in the towns of southeast Alaska.

These cruises are mostly bookended by cities like Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, or Anchorage. All are vibrant destinations in and of themselves, but the unique flavor of life in the Alaskan Panhandle is found on the stops in-between. Those stops vary, but could include places like Icy Strait Point, which has become an increasingly popular destination and launch pad for excursions to the Tlingit community of Hoonah, and the nearby Glacier Bay area. Or, you might visit Haines, a mecca for bald eagles on the deepest fjord in North America. Cruises that slip past the Inside Passage to visit the Gulf of Alaska will likely stop in Sitka, the former capital of Russian Alaska. And most of the cruises that officially begin or end in Anchorage actually dock at distant, quainter locales like Seward or Whittier, with transport provided to Anchorage by road.

But, by far, the three most common ports of call are Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. All are colorful communities, reflecting their storied pasts, as well as the character of the coastal waterways, mountains, and temperate rainforests that surround them.

However, one of the first things you’ll encounter in each of them is a glut of shops to greet disembarking tourists. The most unique offerings tend to be art and handicrafts reflecting indigenous cultures, primarily the Tlingit and Haida people, such as formline imagery (commonly associated with totem pole designs), bentwood items, and woven baskets. You will also find an endless variety of ulu blades, an iconic tool, albeit one traditionally tied to cultures found elsewhere in Alaska.

The other head-turning items are the jewelry, scrimshaw, and carvings made from walrus tusk, or—believe it or not—woolly mammoth ivory. A lot of these bones had been well preserved by permafrost, and are now being found in shifting riverbeds and eroding coastlines. Generally, mammoth ivory resembles petrified wood, with brownish or bluish graining it acquired from the soil where it was buried. And, since mammoth ivory comes from an extinct source (hence, clearly not an animal being hunted for its ivory), it is exempt from international restrictions, so you needn’t fret about taking it home or abroad.

Creek Street in Ketchikan, Alaska

Photo: Darin Lietz
The aptly named Creek Street in Ketchikan was once the town’s Red Light District.

Of the three towns, Ketchikan is the southernmost and arguably the prettiest. One of the town’s highlights is the historic and aptly named Creek Street, composed of buildings and boardwalks built over the water on wooden pilings, straddling either side of Ketchikan Creek. Once the town’s Red Light District, it is now a quaint haven of handicraft stores, curio shops, and restaurants, as well as Dolly’s House Museum, a former bordello that pays tribute to the area’s colorful history of bawdy houses and bootleggers.

Ketchikan is known as “The Salmon Capital of the World,” but could probably lay an even stronger claim to being the Totem Pole Capital, as it has the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles. Most of those seen in local parks and throughout town are replicas, but the Totem Heritage Center has amassed a collection of authentic indigenous poles rescued from various sites around the region.

The next town north is Juneau, the capital of Alaska. On a clear day, you can get a commanding view of the area by taking one of the world’s steepest aerial trams to the top of Mount Roberts, where there’s a nature center, a raptor center that cares for injured eagles, trails, and various amenities. The Mendenhall Glacier is perhaps the most popular nearby destination, which you can experience to various degrees, from simply checking out the view at the visitor center, all the way to chartering a helicopter and dogsled tour. In Juneau’s small downtown area, the renowned Alaskan Brewing Company has a shop where you can catch one of their shuttles for a brief drive around town, and on to the brewery for a very worthwhile tour and tasting.

Farthest north is Skagway, the famous gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. All of the buildings are either authentic leftovers from the boomtown days, or made up to look like it. One of the worthiest destinations is Corrington’s Alaskan Ivory & Museum, which sells carvings and scrimshaw, and features an amazing free museum with artifacts from the pre-historic era, along with every chapter in Alaskan history since. Visitors are practically obliged to grab a drink and tour the bordello in the famous Red Onion Saloon, but if you want some truly satisfying food and drink, save most of the room in your belly for the Skagway Brewing Company, up the road.

A popular excursion is taking a train (or driving) through some of the old Gold Rush routes into the Yukon, which is surely a much more pleasant experience than hoofing it through a blizzard with a pick-axe and eighty pounds of supplies on your back would have been.

Photo: Darin Lietz 4x4s on the Klondike Highway, caravanning from Skagway to the Yukon through the Coastal Mountains. Excursions like this are a great opportunity to see more of the terrain.

Photo: Darin Lietz
4x4s on the Klondike Highway, caravanning from Skagway to the Yukon through the Coastal Mountains. Excursions like this are a great opportunity to see more of the terrain.

As a matter of fact, that image of the prospector pretty much sums up how difficult it can still be to see much of this region. Attempting to experience everything provided on even the most basic Alaska cruise by any other means could end up costing you several times as much. Juneau and Ketchikan are only accessible by boat or air, and the drive to Skagway might take you a couple days from even the nearest part of the Lower 48, not to mention the expense of chartering travel to the fjords and glaciers. And, not only does your ship fare include your transport and accommodation, but will likely have its share of activities, shows, pools, meals, and relaxation zones included in the cost. It really is a remarkable value, and a fantastic way to get your fjord fix, while taking a 101 course in the world of southeast Alaska.

This article originally appeared in the June 27, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.