We have now driven over 10,000 miles since starting our US road trip in Morehead, KY on May 24th. Our return journey from Alaska back to Canada and the lower 48 could be completed a few different ways, either by more driving or utilizing the Inside Passage ferry system. It was a fairly easy decision, albeit a chunk more expensive – we took Going Broke on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Skagway to Juneau, then on to Prince Rupert, and then the BC ferry to Port Hardy in the north of Vancouver Island.
With no direct roads from the south central of Alaska to the panhandle, we first had to make our way back through the edge of Canada, followed by a beautifully scenic drive through Carcross and down into the cruise ship haven of Skagway. For such a small town it sure packs a big punch for cruise tourists, with more jewelry and tee-shirt stores than we’ve seen in such a confined space – it wasn’t always this way, originally the gateway to the Klondike gold rush towns for prospectors heading north in search of their fortunes. We decided to push the boat out here for two nights and lay our heads on proper pillows at the Westmark Inn, something that pleased Andrea immensely! The Whitepass & Yukon Route Railroad was definitely the main attraction in town, filled to capacity with cruise ship passengers heading up on the three hour return trip to White Pass summit. Not sure why but we signed up too, probably as it seemed so popular and the thing to do – it wasn’t a bad way to spend three hours but we agreed we wouldn’t do it again!
Our travel through the Inside Passage waterway was to begin from here, first with a six and a half hour ferry to Juneau, the jumping off point to Gustavus and Glacier Bay National Park, and strangely enough the capital of the state.
We pitched our tent at the Spruce Meadow RV Park, twelve miles from the center of Juneau, but close to the ferry and airport for our upcoming travels. A bit of a drive into town but far enough out to be away from the hordes of tourists! Due to an early morning flight to Gustavus the following day we had no time to see the city, in fact little time to do anything other than eat and sleep – Juneau would wait until we got back a couple of days later.
Our morning flight to Gustavus had a brief refueling stop in Hoonah, still giving us under an hour flight time – we love these little rinky dink prop flights. Surprisingly we had no transportation to the Glacier Bay campground, nor did we have any reservations for camping, something that I’m usually all over. Scrounging a lift from the airport to the intersection that declared itself the center of town turned out to be easy, and with assistance from the small bakery we were soon pitching our tent in the NPS campground, just feet away from the calm waters of Bartlett Cove. Free is good, and with transportation and camping gratis we were happy – the local taxi driver wanted $30 each way. What didn’t turn out so well was what we really came here for, kayaking through icebergs and being up close with glaciers. Turns out that the park’s only concessionaire, Glacier Bay Kayaks, was completely full for the weekend, as well as the couple of other operators outside of the park. This was bad news for us! We could have spent the day on another overpriced boat tour to see the landscape, but we decided against it, hoping that we could at least get an afternoon on a kayak within the cove.
We had fantastic weather for our two nights and with some persistence, we were able to snag a four hour kayak rental to see sea otters and porpoises up close. Hiking in the park was limited, but we saw plenty of bald eagles and a bear, an unexpected surprise!
With only a few hours here on our first pass through we were excited to explore Juneau, It’s only 43 miles from end to end so we had plenty of time in four days to see most of what Juneau had to offer. We headed back to the same campground, Spruce Meadow RV Park, where Andrea had great internet and we had the chance to wash our clothes, something we don’t seem to do enough! The location was only a five minute drive from the Mendenhall Glacier, a spectacular but extremely popular attraction on the cruise ship itinerary. We made sure we only visited outside of the 9 to 4 zoo hours. Early one morning I spotted a young cub with its mother climbing down from a peaceful nights rest high up in a tree – something great to see without hordes of tourists around!
The town center had its typical tourist attractions – tee-shirt shops galore, tanzanite stores, and all sorts of crap made in China, but with the use of Going Broke we were able to see what cruise passengers fortunately miss out on. There were creeks FULL of spawning salmon, glaciers other than Mendenhall, bald eagles by the dozen, and some amazing scenery along the main highway leading out of town. We managed to take the fat-bikes out for a 44 mile ride along road and trail to see Herbert Glacier, visit the Shrine of St Therese, with its amazing grounds and location overlooking the whale filled channel, and take the premium tour of the Macaulay salmon hatchery (a must-do!), something we found amazing.
It was unbelievable watching thousands of salmon leaping up man-made ladders after years at sea to get back to the exact location they hatched from – the females were then sliced open to have their eggs removed and the males had their sperm squeezed from them into a bucket, both dying in the process. This actually mimics what happens in the wild when they die by the thousands after spawning in creeks all over the Pacific northwest. After egg and sperm removal, the eggs were fertilized. Once hatched, they were put into holding areas so the water composition of this area would be impregnated on their brains, all in preparation for their return trip many years later. Forget about dolphins and elephants being smart, salmon take the number one spot for me!
I sat amazed for hours at the sheer carnage of Chum, or Dog salmon, swimming up the creeks only a few inches deep to spawn, slowly decomposing as they moved farther into fresh water – looking just like zombies, the swimming dead. The eggs and dead fish made easy pickings for herring gulls, bald eagles and other sea birds who gouged until they could eat no more. The stench was overwhelming, the sight was sometimes disturbing, but I couldn’t help returning to witness one of natures remarkable spectacles.
Juneau to Prince Rupert
We initially thought we should have reserved a cabin for this extended overnight leg of our marine journey, but why do that when we could throw our sleeping bags down on the hard deck and camp giving us a big cost saving. The ferry, M/V Matanuska, departed Juneau at 4.45pm on Thursday and arrived in Prince Rupert at 1.15am Saturday, after stops in Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan. The worst part was having to hang around the dock area for six hours before boarding the BC Ferry for Port Hardy.
I was thinking that this may be an extended nature cruise with orcas, whales, and porpoises ducking and diving as the boat passed through the calm waters – this was certainly a misconception with only a single far off humpback whale sighting. Where was the luck when we needed it! With only a thirty minute stop in the first two ports to let passengers on and off we continued on to Ketchikan where we spent over five hours – this made for a welcome break and gave us a little time to explore one of the coastal communities.
Our first impressions were that none of these coastal towns had huge appeal making us glad we hadn’t planned for overnight stays. Further exploring into the islands could well have proven us wrong! The towns all revolved around fishing and logging, with tourism, including kayaking, bear viewing, hiking and fishing being the main reason people visit. I know I would have loved to have visited the bears of Anan Creek at the southern end of Wrangell, and we were advised to try and get to Sitka, both extending our stay and finances beyond our allowances. The Alaskan Marine Highway ferry system also has limited service to the islands of the Aleutians, including Dutch Harbor, the home of the Deadliest Catch, which would have made for an interesting adventure. Life really is too short!
Prince Rupert to Port Hardy
With a very restless few hours sleep we boarded the BC Ferries vessel on its 16 hour cruise along Canada’s Inside Passage, with a final destination of Vancouver Island’s northern Port Hardy. Slightly more expensive than its Alaskan counterpart, but far more luxurious, with VIP lounges, an excellent restaurant, and comfy seating throughout. None of this really mattered as we were both at the point of wanting solid ground and a good nights sleep. The scenery along the narrow passages had barely changed since we left Juneau, with fir-tree covered shorelines and hillsides, a couple of fishing settlements and the occasional humpback whale.
Our eventual campground arrival in Port Hardy came none too soon!
July 29th – August 9th 2014