“A thousand fir-covered islands, countless sheltered coves and bays. Geesche Jacobsen discovers Alaska.”
SIX YEARS after Captain Cook discovered Australia, he embarked on his third, and final, voyage, in which he charted much of the North American coastline for the first time.
Part of the journey – the 1600-kilometre trip from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska’s capital – has since become known as the Inside Passage. It’s a labyrinth of narrow canals and passages between the mainland and more than a thousand fir-covered islands, with countless sheltered coves, bays and inlets and some open-ocean stretches.
The waterways were carved by glaciers and with its mild maritime climate, the area is a habitat for dolphins, whales, sea lions and other wildlife.
The Inside Passage has inspired several works of North American literature since European discovery, and in 2000 the New York Times bestseller Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban introduced a new generation to the myths and history of the voyage. Before discovery by British, Spanish and Russian explorers, native tribes had settled here because of the abundance of food. It became a busy trade route and carried those heeding the call of the Klondike gold rush.
While the passage, officially labelled a marine highway, is plied by loggers, supply barges, freighters, ferries, cruise ships and fishing boats, the surrounding mountains and forests are largely untouched wilderness.
More than a century after the start of the gold rush, South East Alaska still toys with the label “the last frontier”; still it can be reached only by plane or boat via the Inside Passage.
To experience part of this historic journey in something akin to the way of the first explorers, I travelled not by plane or on a large cruise ship or ferry, but on a 26-metre, timber boat built in 1931 (below).
Discovery runs charters, billed as Alaskan wildlife cruises, between Seattle and Juneau from May to September, and promises “the elegance of a bygone era”.
I joined it in Seattle for the 1100-kilometre trip to Ketchikan, Alaska’s southern-most major port. At a speed of up to 10 knots, and travelling between five and 12 hours a day, the journey took nine days.
I took the first trip of the season, in early May, and only two other passengers, a retired couple from New Zealand, joined the voyage, though the boat can take up to 10 passengers. The three of us joined four staff on board: Captain Ben Swanson, his first mate and uncle Ted, an Alaskan chef, Allan Edwards, and his Australian wife, and deckhand Susi Zimmerman.
The charming boat has an elegant, mahogany-panelled dining and living room next to the galley. Think Agatha Christie movie, and you’ll get the picture. Or, as one of my fellow passengers said, referring to its gentle sway: “The boat reminds me of an old lady dancing.”
The aft deck is sheltered by canvas covers with windows. Below deck are several cabins, most with double beds, and two bathrooms. The accommodation is more like a charming guesthouse than five-star luxury (and long showers are discouraged).
We leave Seattle from Lake Union late in the morning on the first day, and travel past the houseboats made famous by Sleepless in Seattle, pass through the locks and begin our journey.
By day two we reach Canadian waters and stop overnight at Nanaimo, a town on Vancouver Island. The next day the majestic mountains recede towards the horizon as the vast and beautiful Desolation Sound opens out around us. The sound is busy during peak season, but we encountered only a few freighters and tugs, and some floating logs.
Behind, the granite hills are patterned by lichen and moss, and higher still, black mountains are tipped with snow.
When it’s too breezy or we get tired of watching the landscape slide by, we chat, read, nap or sit with hot cocoa and Zimmerman’s lemon and coconut slices sprinkled with pistachio nuts.
We are waited on for breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon hors d’oeuvres and a three-course dinner. The food, including soups, lamb shanks, spare ribs and profiteroles, is good, plentiful and easily meets the promised “gourmet family-style” tag.
By day four I’m struggling to accept the enclosed space and loss of independence. I am forced to relax. I begin to notice the hum of the engine, the creaking of the wood, the sloshing of the waves, the occasional rattle of the windows in the breeze, and the smell of Al’s next meal.
On day five we pass the top of Vancouver Island and into a small stretch of rough sea – nothing much between us, the Bering Sea, and Kamchatka.
Every evening the boat stops: we dock in small ports for three nights, but mostly anchor in sheltered bays or inlets. Here we take kayaks exploring, or walk inland.
On day six we wake in a small bay near a tourist lodge in an area known as the Hakai Passage. Before breakfast, we walk on the island’s beach and encounter a wolf, which beats a hasty retreat. A rare sighting, says the captain.
Prints on the beach indicate it’s not the only wildlife here.
Earlier in the trip, porpoises ride the bow wave and a group of grey dolphins swim behind our boat. We see sea lions, seals, plenty of bald eagles and some distant whales.
We arrive at Khutze Inlet, a beautiful bay with a waterfall dropping from a 300-metre cliff.
We don rubber boots and wet-weather gear to go squish-squashing through the mudflats. We set crab pots and, next morning, Swanson brings in nine big crabs for dinner, putting back the females.
On day nine, our last day, we make it to Alaska’s first port, Ketchikan, in time to clear customs. We see our first cruise ships in the distance.
This was the first trip for the cook and deckhand, and the captain is still teaching them the ropes. Captain Swanson, at 34 the youngest person on board, is clearly in charge, and watching his people skills and listening to his stories are among the highlights of the trip.
Swanson, who has been coming to south-east Alaska since he was a child, says he still enjoys the trips because taking travellers is like seeing things “with their eyes, for the first time, every time”. There are bays he has not seen, waterfalls he has never spotted before, and animals to be encountered in surprising places.
Travelling on a small, family-run boat is as different from the large cruise-ship experience as a boutique guesthouse is from a luxury hotel.
This trip was not just about retracing the steps of Captain Cook or other explorers, or about experiencing the remote wilderness of British Columbia. The beautiful old boat and the stately pace added as much to the journey as the people with whom I shared it.
#1 Getting there: Qantas flies non-stop from Melbourne to Los Angeles daily, Air New Zealand flies daily from Melbourne to Los Angeles and San Francisco via Auckland, and United Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles. Several US airlines fly to Seattle: Qantas, from $2160 plus tax; Air NZ, $1927 plus tax; and United, $2060 plus tax. Alaska Airlines flies three times daily Seattle to Ketchikan: $US205 (incl taxes).
#2 Cruising: All Aboard Yacht Charters runs trips on the Inside Passage May to September, eight days, seven nights: Seattle to Ketchikan; Ketchikan to Juneau; Juneau return around Admiralty Island. $3295 a person.
#3 The state will pay you to live there: Yes, it’s not a hoax, if you move to Alaska the state will pay you up to $2,000 every year.