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January/February 2005

The Floating Frontier: Cruising and Paddling Alaska

The slow boat to Alaska requires duct tape, an elastic itinerary, and a hunger for in-your-face adventure.

One effect of riding the ferry: It made me want to get closer to the water. From the Juneau stop, I hop a $90 bush-plane ride to Gustavus, gateway to Glacier Bay–one of 10 national parks and monuments of which the ferries come within a puddle-jump. From the ranger station in Bartlett Cove, I watch the requisite bear safety video, rent a kayak, and point my bow toward the Beardslee Islands, which shelter prime humpback feeding grounds. I paddle for 90 minutes and suddenly the whales are everywhere, surfacing with a whoosh almost close enough to touch. Around dusk, as raindrops begin to fall through the fog, I stop paddling, lean back, and listen. I can’t see much beyond my bow, but all around me, I hear whales rising for blows. I spend 2 days and 2 nights here, playing hide and seek with the humpbacks, and paddling miles in every direction, searching in vain for an orca.

In the evening, I land in a cove on Strawberry Island, one of about 50 unoccupied islands clustered in the Beardslees, and make an inconspicuous camp in grass above the beach. I stash my food 300 yards away–the footprints all over the sand are more than adequate reminder, as if I need one–but still, a bear comes sniffing around my tent sometime in the night. The creature retreats when I loudly begin reciting Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” When it’s clear that the bear is gone, I break camp early–around 4:15 A.M., well after dawn here this time of year–and flee as well.

Other stop-offs involve less time and bruin exposure. Over the course of my ferry tour–which costs around $350, a fraction of what the cruise ships cost–I drop in some of Alaska’s iconic coastal towns for some quick exploration. In Sitka, I hike an easy 11 miles round-trip to the appropriately majestic Indian River Falls. Outside of Haines, I summit Mt. Ripinsky, grinding up 3,600 feet in just under 4 miles; from the peak, I could see for miles down the Chilkoot Inlet and, all around, the starkly glacial Chilkoot and Chilkat Ranges.

Even the mainland town of Skagway, the Gold Rush town that has slipped toward cruise-ship kitsch, has enough going to occupy hikers for months. The Chilkoot Trail starts nearby, and I ponder covering at least a few of its harshly steep 33 miles. Instead, I head toward the foothills outside of town and scramble up a hellacious trail that climbs 6 miles and 3,700 feet past Upper Dewey Lake and a series of other moraines to, finally, Punchbowl Lake, which sits near the top of the massif in a deep, rocky glacier-fed bowl. I breathe in the vistas of Mt. Harding and the vast Taiya Inlet, and against the backdrop of 8,000-foot peaks, the cruise ships look like tub toys and their passengers like silverfish.

The weather deteriorates on the descent, and dodging pellets of hail the size of Concord grapes, I make it back to the ferry terminal just in time for the next ride south. As I duct tape my rainfly to the stern deck, the horn sounds and the boat grinds backward from the dock. I take one last glimpse of the steep-walled Lynn Canal and climb in my tent for a nap. As sure as the rain, when I unzip my fly hours from now, the Marine Highway will have delivered me to Juneau or Homer or some new island I don’t know exists yet, where Alaska will prove again that no matter how much you’ve seen here, the place never fails to amaze you all over again.

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