Northwest travel: Five courses up the Inside Passage

Many Seattleites have either never traveled the Inside Passage or seen only parts of it, remotely, from the deck of a cruise ship. A trip through on a ferry is well worth the time.
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From the deck of a boat cruising the Inside Passage. (Ross Anderson)

Many Seattleites have either never traveled the Inside Passage or seen only parts of it, remotely, from the deck of a cruise ship. A trip through on a ferry is well worth the time.

Alaska beckons. Take a stroll through Fisherman's Terminal, or any other working marina from Bellingham to Shelton, and you will hear its siren song, whispering through the rigging: It's time to think about going north.

You wander the docks, taking in the smell of sawdust and fresh varnish and $200-a-gallon copper bottom paint. Skippers are aching to get back on the water, stock up the galley, fire up those diesels and point their bows north by northwest.

So it has been for well over a century — that deep, maritime bond between Puget Sound and soggy Alaskan ports from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor. Thousands of adventurers, dating back to John Muir and Jack London, have boarded steamers or fishing boats or private yachts here with a yen to explore the Inside Passage.

For fishermen, it's an annual migration. Each fall, they deliver the last of their salmon or halibut and limp south for the winter. They hunker down for a few months, wondering if they want to do it again, until that spring day when they hear that call of the North like the howl of a gray wolf. So they haul their boats for a coat of fresh paint and new zincs...and the cycle is renewed.

I feel that tug. I don't own an Alaska boat, and it might be years between trips north, but I hear it all the same. My first trip was some 35 years ago, when a couple of pals and I took the Alaska ferry to Skagway, hiked the Chilkoot Pass and floated the Yukon River to Dawson City. Since then I've cruised the Inside Passage many times — via Alaska ferry, BC ferry, private yacht, commercial fishing boats and, yes, a big cruise ship.

It never gets old. From Admiralty Inlet to Glacier Bay, there's enough geography and grandeur and character to fill a lifetime. And I'm continually surprised to learn how many people have lived here for decades, yet never cruised the Inside Passage, never laid eyes on those 5,000-foot mountain ranges partially submerged in 1,000-foot deep seas, never watched a humpback whale the size of an 18-wheeler leap off the surface of a deep, green fjord.

For all its remoteness, the Inside Passage is amazingly accessible.

Most tourists see it from the deck of one of those gigantic cruise ships. For $1,000 and up, you can sit in a comfy chair, sip something pink, read some Muir or London, and watch the wilderness float by. I took a mini-cruise out of Seattle some years ago — along with some 2,000 other people, plus crew. When we reached the top of Desolation Sound, the clouds parted to reveal one of the world's most spectacular views. And I practically had it to myself, because most of my shipmates were down below, pumping quarters into slot machines.

There are better ways to cruise the passage. Last year, I travelled with an old friend at the helm of his 41-foot Monk cruiser. We took two weeks to make the passage to Ketchikan, counting sidetrips to places like Kingcome Inlet, BC. We spent our evenings relaxing in wilderness hot springs or gorging ourselves on fresh Dungeness crab.

It's possible to make the voyage in a small craft, but most prefer a serious boat — say, 30 to 40 feet or more. While most of the route is "protected," it is also an uphill course, where most days are spent cruising into the teeth of the prevailing wind and seas. And there are three major crossings, where boats are exposed to the open ocean.

For the boatless, the most popular option is the Alaska ferry, the Columbia, which (thanks to Alaska taxpayers) remains one of the great cruising bargains. It's essentially a small cruise ship, which leaves Bellingham at 6 p.m. each Friday, year round, steaming the Passage to Southeast Alaska. The one-way passenger fare is $240 to Ketchikan, which takes two full days; $325 to Juneau or Sitka, which is another full day. Kids 6-11 sail for half price, under six for free. (The vehicle fare is much stiffer — $740 to Juneau. But what would you do with a car up there, anyway?)

The hitch, of course, is accommodations. There are a few cabins, but they're pricey and they're usually booked months in advance. So most travelers set up backpacking tents and inflatable mattresses on the stern deck. I've always done it that way; the last time, I counted 80 tents, lashed to each other to keep them from blowing away in the slipstream. There is a decent restaurant, a bar and a coffee shop on board. But no casino, no dancing girls. Entertainment is provided by the scenery, a good book, or the Alaskan in the next seat.

Then there is the BC ferry, a similar ship that runs between Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, and Prince Rupert, near the Alaska border. This route takes in some of the most spectacular stretches of the Inside Passage, with the added advantage of being able to transfer to other boats for travel into the BC fjords.

The boat leaves Port Hardy at 7:30 a.m. every other day and arrives in Prince Rupert at close to midnight, so travelers need to book accommodations at both ends in advance. The one-way fare is $125, and kids sail for half fare. The Seattle-to-Port Hardy drive takes a very long day, or there are express buses from Victoria.

For the uninhibited, there may be yet another alternative. My most memorable cruise north was on an aging steel-hulled purse seiner run by a crusty Slav who agreed to let me tag along. Like most fishermen, he cruised straight through, day and night, without stopping, taking four days to reach Ketchikan.

The skipper was short-handed; a couple of crew planned to catch up with him in Ketchikan. So, by the second day, he had me standing a regular watch at the helm, steering that big, throaty seineboat through the night, guided by radar and the stars.

Each summer, a small fleet of commercial boats leaves Seattle and other Puget Sound ports, headed for the Alaska fishing grounds. Often they travel with few crew, or none at all. I've often wondered why they don't sell berths to adventure-seeking passengers, who would rather see the Passage from the bridge of a fishing boat than from the windows of a floating casino.

If you go

Ross Anderson traveled unannounced, and he paid regular rates, with no special accommodations, except for what the fisherman allowed him.


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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.