Into the Heart of Alaska’s Inside Passage: Backpacking the Blue Canoe
Into the Heart of Alaska’s Inside Passage: Backpacking the Blue Canoe
By Preb Stritter
The long coastal strip of Southeast Alaska, known as the Inside Passage, is made up of a myriad of islands, an infinite fractal curve of coastline, still unexplored rivers, inlets, and coves – all backed by a wilderness of mountains, glaciers, and waterways.
But getting to this pristine place isn’t easy. Southeast Alaska has no through-roads: to get there and around you must fly or float. I chose to float.
I was looking forward to two different kayak trips with small groups of like-minded nature lovers, though I knew I would chafe a bit under a daily schedule dictated by the leaders. But I also knew that in between guided trips, I would have a couple of weeks to get from Petersburg to Gustavus in the heart of the roadless wilderness of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
That was when I discovered the backpackers’ cruise ships, the Blue Canoes of the Alaskan Marine Highway. I booked passage to float from Petersburg to Sitka to Angoon to Juneau to Gustavus with time for two or three days of exploration in each port. The ferry interlude would give me the freedom of unscheduled solo travel and the opportunity to discover places and people at an unhurried pace.
Petersburg was a good place to start. It’s a small town built on a Norwegian heritage; a friendly place where you can quickly feel at home. There are numerous opportunities for hiking, fishing, whale watching, or glacier touring. The amenities of the town are ample for rainy day activities and basic shopping.
I checked in at the Petersburg Bunk & Breakfast where owner, Ryn Schneider, opens her home to hostel-type travelers. She is a fountain of information and hospitality when she isn’t off on her own fishing boat pursuing her other business. My fellow boarders where a motley and congenial lot, all with adventures to share; a Mother/Daughter pair from Slovenia, a Father/Son team riding JetSkis from Vancouver to Skagway.
A couple in their mid-60s taking their Yakama FS 1200 motorcycle to the top of the Alaskan Highway with where they planned to ride down to the PanAm Highway and all the way to Tierra del Fuego.
I spent my days wandering the town and its environs with my camera ready for the unique quaintness of this little displaced Norwegian fishing town. When it rained, I browsed the public library and the excellent small museum. When the sun shone, there was always something interesting to see down at the docks – fishing boats coming and going, small private cruise ships, mosquito-like float planes jostling with the boats for dock space, and, now and then, a kayak.
The Blue Canoe LeConte
It was hard to leave Petersburg, but the ferry schedule said I must, so I set out to explore the world of the Blue Canoe. I had chosen the mid-sized MV LeConte carrying 250 passengers and 34 vehicles. Above the car deck there was a cafeteria, restrooms–including hot showers, several lounges with reclining seats, and a large sundeck with both open and covered areas. The Blue Canoes are very welcoming to backpackers.
Folks sleep in the lounge chairs, spread their sleeping bags on the soft carpet around the edges, appropriate a horizontal lounge on the sundeck, and even pitch their tents on the back deck. No hassle.
The LeConte had a friendly feel – the passengers were mostly native Alaskans or independent travelers – and conversations flowed easily. Eagles, seals, or bears were announced over the PA system and everyone shared the excitement of whale sightings or wandering icebergs. I returned to the LeConte for each leg of my Blue Canoe journey and it became my floating home.
Sitka was an appropriate jump up from tiny Petersburg. Here, one gets a good look at Alaskan history from the early days of the Tlingit natives to the Russian colonization of the 1800s. Home of the Sitka National Historical Park, the town includes a noteworthy museum about the various native peoples, a number of historic buildings from the Russian era, and a comprehensive National Park Visitor Center.
At the Hostel International I met some friends from Petersburg and the ferry. My roommates were New Zealanders, including the two eye-catching senior ladies last seen erecting their tent on the back deck of the ferry. There is nothing boring or ordinary about the friends you make on a do-it-yourself journey.
Angoon was the smallest of my stopovers, boasting a Tlingit population of 650 engaged principally in commercial fishing. It is the only settlement on Admiralty Island, which includes the 956,000-acre Admiralty Island National Monument and Kootznoowoo Wilderness. Roadless and riven with meandering waterways and forested mountains as high as 4650 ft, Admiralty is a paradise for tough wilderness paddlers.
Angoon is a native Alaskan town trying hard to survive. The setting is appealing, high on the peninsula overlooking Chatham Strait to the west and Kootznahoo Inlet to the north. I stayed at the Kootznahoo Inlet Lodge, a basic motel with housekeeping units. The only other guest was a Japanese sport fisherman who comes every year and this time had brought his two young children.
My hostess, owner Sally Kookesh, agreed to include me in family dinners. Over my fresh seafood meals Sally told me of the local politics and problems – native Alaskan fishing and lumber rights.
The Japanese man and his family invited me to join them in his Zodiac far up the inlet while he fished. The forest scenery was inviting and I delighted in sighting eagles and deer with the children. The day before they had seen a mother bear and cubs, but I was not so lucky. The three-day interlude was a leisurely break as well as a cross-cultural experience – just the kind of unexpected encounter that independent travel generates.
My journal of 25 years ago records Juneau as “a town climbing wooden staircases up the side of a steep mountain.” By now, urban sprawl has spread the city and its suburbs far along the coastline, and the steepness of the city center is obscured between the tourist cablecar and the towering cruise liners berthed right along the main street.
Juneau, as we know it, began in the 1880’s when Joe Juneau was sent to investigate Tlingit claims of gold along the Gastineau Channel. Soon, the quiet fishing village had grown into a major mining industry and so it remained until the 1940s, when the mines were closed. By then, Juneau was established as the State capital. Today many residents are employed in running the government. Tourism is the other principal industry.
I bunked in the suburbs with a new friend found through the Peace Corps alumni organization. Armed with a bus map and my ever-itchy foot, I checked out the environs of Juneau. This bustling city of over 30,000 is closely ringed with some of the best of Alaskan wilderness, including the nearby Juneau Icefield and the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier which spills almost into town.
Gustavus was a perfect finale – small and restful and different. It lies just around the corner from the mouth of Glacier Bay with its rainforests drifting into glacial moraine and backed by ice-draped mountain peaks. In contrast, Gustavus is spread out on a large, flat peninsula looking like one huge meadow backed by friendly forests.
I settled into Aimee Youmans’ tiny apartment tucked in the corner of a small gallery showcasing the works of local artists and craftsmen and surrounded by a meadow tall with lavender fireweed. I was supplied with a collection of books recording the history of the area and a bicycle for exploring. Camera handy, I rode to the airfield to the east, to the golf course and ferry landing to the south, to the Sandhill Crane Sanctuary to the west, and north past scattered B&B’s. I relaxed while soaking up local memorabilia with my books – an appropriate ending for my journey on the Blue Canoes of the Alaska Marine Highway System. It was time for a boat of my own.
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