- - Thursday, October 2, 2014

It used to be gold that drew people North to Alaska. Now it’s glaciers. I undertook the expedition, and for seven days my home would be the American Spirit, a small ship that cruises the Inside Passage, where glaciers, towering mountains and unforgettable wildlife were at my fingertips.
I saw the first glacier even before boarding the ship in Juneau, the state capital. The Mendenhall Glacier, just outside town, is about a mile-and-a-half wide and 12 miles long. Seen from across the valley, the first impression is of a baked Alaska, mounds of burnt meringue atop a layer of sapphire blue ice.
A helicopter took me to the top. From above, it seems like some monstrous version of the 405 freeway, stripes and all, filling the entire valley and curving into infinity. The chopper touched down high in the valley where the glacier is born, a Shangri-La of perennial snow and clouds. We were standing atop a hundred feet of snow and thousands more feet of ice. This is home for some 250 Alaskan huskies and the men and women who mush them for tourists like me. Guides mustered a team to pull the next sled and the dogs began howling, pleading “Pick me! Pick me!”
The first port of call for the American Spirit is Skagway, a Victorian-era gold rush town of 600 where, like the fortune hunters before us, we rode the White Pass railway through the soaring mountains to Canada. Upon return, the clouds broke long enough to take a helicopter to the stunning blue crevasses and melt water ponds on the lower reaches of Meade Glacier.
Glacier Bay
Sailing overnight to Glacier Bay, we passed through a Chinese ink brush landscape of dark fir-clad mountains cloaked in mists. Fluted walls rise from the channel’s flat water like ramparts of an ancient impregnable fortress. Silver threads of waterfalls drop from the negative space of fog-shrouded peaks and disappear behind folds of the mountains before reaching the sea.
The park service requires ships in Glacier Bay have a naturalist on board. American Spirit is one of the few ships that also provides a Native American guide. Faith Grant, from the Tlingit tribe, proves indispensable.
The Tlingit lived here on land until an advancing glacier pushed them out. When the glacier retreated a few decades later, it left the bay in its place. These epochal transformations all took place in the last 300 years.
We pass mountain goats perched on steep cliffs and humpback whales spouting and diving. Puffins, pigeon guillemots, murrelets, cormorants and gulls crowd outcroppings of rock. Reaching Margerie Glacier at the head of the bay, we cut the engines and linger before the massive wall of blue ice and white snow at water’s edge. We’re hoping for the glacier to melt before our eyes. It cooperates, calving chunks of the ice as the passengers cheer.
Bear’s Buffet
Next up, the tiny community of Kake bills itself as home to world’s tallest totem pole, and if that weren’t reason enough to make this a port of call, salmon the size of a man’s arm are spawning, muscling upstream to lay eggs and die. We walk to Gunnuk Creek to watch bears enjoying an all-you-can-eat buffet under the watchful eyes of bald eagles, which are everywhere in Kake.
Humpback whales and orcas surround the boat as we steam toward Petersburg, a place that owes its existence to abundant fish, a nearby glacier (for icing the catch), and navigation routes to the U.S. market. A Norwegian immigrant saw the business potential in the 19th century, and the town has been thriving since. Multimillion-dollar boats haul gold from these waters. Dockside, a captain describes catches large enough to capsize boats.
Heading back toward Juneau, orcas greet us as we enter Tracy Arm, a fjord of stunning beauty. Bergs of shocking blue and penetrating white float in the aquamarine waters hemmed in by granite cliffs beneath a sapphire sky. Broad fir-carpeted valleys branch off the main trunk of the fjord. At the head of the channel, the retreating Sawyer Glacier gives birth to several chunks of ice as we float before it.
Naturalist John Muir came to Alaska and described what he found as perhaps even more beautiful than his beloved Yosemite Valley. He also said, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.” We agree.
The ship
Most of southeast Alaska is only accessible by sea. A cruise is the most practical way to see it, and a small ship can go places giant cruise ships can’t. American Spirit is an American-built, American-registered small ship of American Cruise Lines. With only 47 cabins, it has an informal, personal atmosphere. No surprise they have repeat customers, Ed Meese among them. An on-board naturalist gives daily lectures and points out wildlife from the open-air fourth deck. Cabins with private balconies allow you to take in the stunning scenery from your stateroom. The menu features fresh fish and salads with complimentary wine and beer. Pre-dinner cocktail hour has a full open bar and tasty hors d’oeuvres.
Temsco Helicopters Inc. offers glacier tours and dog sled tours from bases in Juneau, Skagway and Petersburg. They provide glacier boots, guides and everything you need for a safe, unforgettable experience exploring the unique glacier landscape. Unless you’re a mountain climber, you’ll never see anything like it and it’s worth the cost.

Curtis Ellis is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. He has traveled 6 continents, dined with senators and street vendors, and slept in penthouses and shotgun shacks in pursuit of the good story. He writes about travel, food, culture and politics. He is on Twitter: @curtisellis

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