By the end of April, the annual migration will begin. Hundreds, then thousands of tourists from California or North Dakota or South Korea, will spill off jetliners and onto those huge floating hotels on the Seattle waterfront, all headed north for a week of bottomless food, drink, selfies and perhaps a glimpse of an Alaska glacier.
For those of us who live here, the Call of the North manifests very differently. From Seattle’s Fishermens Terminal to Port Townsend and Bellingham Bay, the boatyards and marinas are abuzz with power sanders and arc welders, the smell of varnish fumes and sawdust and diesel oil – fishermen and boaters gearing up for another voyage up the Inside Passage to Alaska.
I hear that call, or feel it, each spring. And, of course, I too am a tourist. But for those of us who live here, the lure is an extension of the impulses that brought us to the shores of Puget Sound in the first place – a yen for wildness, for the sea and the mountains and the intrinsic sense of adventure they convey.
Yet I’m frequently amazed that many Puget Sounders have never answered that call, never ventured north of Port Townsend or perhaps Victoria, BC.
That’s a shame. Because, however you cruise, you need only venture a few degrees north to where the roads end and you will be reminded of the magnificence of where we live. The thousand miles between Vancouver and Juneau is Mother Nature’s Wonderland, a partially submerged mountain range still evolving from sea to land, or land to sea.
The Inside Passage is not pristine wilderness. It’s been logged for a century, fished for many centuries. There are tiny niches of civilization – a dock here, a fish camp there, and those passing cruise ships. But what you see today is not fundamentally different from what George Vancouver journaled about 230 years ago, or what Northwest natives saw 1000 years ago
That’s why I keep going back. And that’s why you should too.
There are several ways to do that. Over the past 50 years, I’ve tried most of them. Here’s what I’ve learned:
No question, this is the finest way to see the passage. I’ve cruised one portion or another aboard boats ranging from an 18-foot kayak to a 160-foot sailing schooner. This, however, requires one to own a seaworthy boat (which I don’t recommend), or to charter one (which I can’t afford), or have a friend who owns one (strongly preferred.) If you have such a friendship, congratulations. You can stop reading. But if you don’t, consider these alternative strategies:
Oddly, an Alaska cruise is not just the most comfortable way to see Alaska, but it’s also potentially the cheapest. As I write, one can still book a week’s cruise in a windowless, inside cabin for less than $1,000. That’s transportation, lodging and food for a little more than $100 a day. What’s wrong with that?
Lots. For starters, the Seattle-based trips steam out the Juan de Fuca Strait and up the west coast, so the “Inside Passage Cruise” actually skips most of the Inside Passage. (Vancouver-based cruises, however, do steam up the inside.)
Once in Southeast Alaska, cruise ships spend most days tied up in Ketchikan, Sitka or Juneau, where they disgorge thousands of passengers into towns that bear only vague resemblance to the salty ports they were before the cruise ships boomed. Much of the actual cruising occurs at night, which seems to miss the point. But nobody seems to complain, perhaps because most of the cruise clientele are there for the food, the casino and the stage shows.
Several companies, including Seattle-based Uncruise Adventures, offer small ship cruises starting at about $3,000 for a week. I’ve not tried this, but I would if I could. There is no casino, no stage shows, but you might actually see the Inside Passage, with guidance from crew who actually know the difference between an orca and a humpback whale.
The state runs a fleet of ocean-going ferries, including a weekly run from Bellingham to Ketchikan or beyond. Juneau is a leisurely three-day voyage, and the adult fare is a bargain $466. There are a few cabins, but they’re pricey and typically booked months in advance. Most passengers bring blowup mattresses and small tents which get lashed together at the stern. I’ve travelled this way several times, counted as many as 80 tents, and the accommodation fits the journey.
Once there, a complex ferry schedule connects Alaskan ports of every size, providing an intimate, if not exactly luxurious, look at life on the edge of the continent.
British Columbia also maintains a ferry fleet that includes a lovely route from Port Hardy, at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert, just south of the Alaska state line. It’s a 20-hour trip, mostly in daylight, running north and southbound on alternating days. The adult fare is $189 this summer. Kids travel for half-fare.
Prince Rupert is no holiday resort. It’s a no-nonsense seaport with a few decent pubs and restaurants and a road connection to the interior. If you’re still northbound, there are infrequent ferry connections with Ketchikan for another $69.
The problem is getting to Port Hardy. In the past, I was able to ferry to Victoria, then bus to Port Hardy and back., But that service has disappeared. The alternative may be to ferry to the island, drive north and park your car, walk onto the boat, and reverse the process to get back home.
No, I’m not kidding. Each summer, beginning in May, Seattle-based fishing boats steam out into the sound and head north for the fishing grounds. Some are short-handed; their crew will join them in Ketchikan or Sitka.
My most memorable trip up the passage came aboard a 60-foot, wood-hulled purse seiner whose skipper needed help. Strolling the docks at Fishermen’s Terminal, I convinced him I could cook a little, I can read a compass and a radar screen and steer a boat. Okay, I may have exaggerated a tad. But we had a deal, and a few days later I was steering that boat up the Inside Passage while the skipper got some sleep.
I got off as planned in Ketchikan and never heard from him again. I hope it worked out for him. It certainly did for me.