Maps and The Inside Passage
I was pretty ignorant about Alaska before we left on our trip and
returned even more ignorant.
I had a lot of questions about the state that never got answered to my
For example, I never quite figured out why Alaska has such a strange
configuration. I mean, if it was just a hunk of ice when
Secretary of State Seward purchased it from Russia, why did it include
the bizarre little strip of land in the south known as "The Inside
What made that slender strip of islands part of Alaska and not
part of Canada?
This southern strip of Alaska is so thin and so mountainous, they
can't even build a road through it. That area you see on the map is
90% islands and channels.
And why didn't Seward shell out another $200 or so and buy land all
the way to Seattle so we wouldn't have to get our stupid luggage
checked by Canadian customs in Calgary? If Seward had so
much "vision", why didn't he buy a couple more islands and made a
clean sweep of the Northern Pacific Coast?
The main reason Alaska was called "Seward's Folly" is because you
can't drive an automobile anywhere that's interesting.
For example, Juneau is not accessible by automobile. It has cars, but
they had to be shipped in. The nearest highway is about 100
miles up the coast at Skagway. In other words, the State Capital
is pretty difficult to get to.
Second, it is aggravating to find that about 70% of the famous Alaskan
Highway actually is located in Canada.
Third, I learned the hard way that the answer to practically every
trivia question about Alaska is "Seward". For example, I could
have sworn the famous Alaskan earthquake of 1965 destroyed Anchorage.
But what town was destroyed by the tsunami that followed?
You can learn a lot by reading Rick's travel blog, that's for sure.
The Inside Passage gets its name from a labyrinth of channels,
straits, islands, isles, and inlets. A ship can completely avoid
open water if it wishes for quite a stretch. The distance on the map
at right from Prince Rupert Island at bottom to Skagway at top is
nearly 500 miles long.
And since there is no point in building any highways, the entire area
is a vast paradise accessible only by boat or ship. By
coincidence, we just happened to be on a ship so we were treated to
endless vistas of amazing beauty on both sides of the ship as we
weaved our way through the various passages. And best of all,
there was practically no sign of mankind for days at a time.
was wonderful to be able to see these islands the same way a Tlingit
Indian must have seen the area hundreds of years ago.
It isn't often you get to see a complete wilderness from the comfort
of a cruise ship balcony.
There were whales aplenty in these waters, but unfortunately they
don't surface very often. One evening as we ate dinner we
spotted a dozen different whale flumes plus an occasional whale
flipper or two. We were mesmerized to be sure.
The whale flume is the Achilles heel of the world's largest mammal.
Spurting 20 feet in the air, this spray is a dead giveaway for the
And now you know where the term "dead giveaway" comes from... whales
are sadly among the world's endangered species because they are so
terribly vulnerable to modern technology. Back in the days of
Moby Dick, it was quite a contest to bring down a whale. But
these days the whale gets spotted it is pretty much defenseless.
Fortunately in 1966 the International Whaling Commission outlawed much of the
hunting of whales. This has allowed a slow, but gradual recovery
of their population.
In the map above, you can trace our route.
- We started in Vancouver and landed first in
Juneau. Juneau was marvelous fun. Not only did we enjoy a look
at the Mendenhall Glacier, but an afternoon trip up the Mt. Roberts
put many group right in the middle of a fabulous mile-high Alaskan
rain forest. In a word, "Wow!"
- From there we made our way up the channels to
Skagway for our second stop. If you look carefully, you will see how
close Skagway is to the Canadian border. After sailing from
Seattle to Skagway, the Klondike gold rushers of 1898 had only a 20
mile hike to get into Canada. But that was the toughest 20
miles imaginable! The majority of our group thoroughly enjoyed
a train ride right up to Canadian border and back. The pain
and suffering of the miners was made highly evident to all of us. We
could not imagine how a trail could ever have been carved out of
terrain as rugged as we were witness to!
- After Skagway we went further north to visit
in the incomparable Hubbard Glacier. Many people considered
this to be the highlight of the trip. It was an incredible
sight to be sure.
- From there we put out to see and circled back
to Ketchikan at the southernmost tip of Alaska's perimeter.
Ketchikan is located right at the edge of the fabulous Misty Fjords
National Forest. Flying over the Misty Fjords was my favorite
adventure of the entire trip.
One more day at sea and we made it back to
Vancouver to end our week's trip.
Juneau is the state capital of Alaska.
Juneau is located in the middle of the Inside Passage at the southern
tip of the state. Behind Juneau is massive Mt. Roberts. The
front of Juneau is a narrow fjord. Across the channel about a mile
away due west is a huge island which faces Juneau. The area is
very secluded and very beautiful. The rolling hills on both
sides of the channel are dotted with lovely homes.
Juneau was by far the most attractive
of the three Alaskan communities we visited. As I checked out
the narrow channel, the snow-capped mountains, the thick misty clouds,
and the lush terrain, I couldn't help but wonder if I was viewing a
fjord in Norway. The entire city is a post card waiting to happen.
As all of you know it was named for Juno, the Roman Queen of the Gods.
It is a little known fact, but Juno was also the Goddess of Glaciers.
Thus is a highly appropriate name because just north of Juneau in the
suburbs is the massive Mendenhall Glacier (seen at right).
This glacier is so accessible you can actually drive a bus over to it.
About 30 members of our group did exactly that. Not only were they
treated to the sight of this magnificent frozen sea, there was a
spectacular water fall and amazingly beautiful Nordic garden to see as
A glacier is a frozen river. It is actually moving all the time
although much too slowly for anyone to notice while standing there.
Due to global warming, most of the Alaskan glaciers are retreating at
the moment. Don't get me started on what I think about global
The Mendenhall Glacier is also highly accessible by helicopter. Quite
a few us including Marla, myself, and our daughters Marissa and Sam
took the helicopter ride as did a dozen other members of our group.
The copter ride was a first for our family and we loved it!
Once the copter set us down, we realized we were in the middle of a
gigantic valley. We were surrounded on three sides by massive peaks.
The terrain was bizarre. It seemed more like a moon landing than
anything else. You definitely had to watch your step. Everywhere you
looked there were small and large crevasses. A couple of these
jagged holes were large
enough to swallow a man, but I didn't see any that looked
life-threatening. Nevertheless I watched my step very carefully.
I counted over a dozen waterfalls that sent winter snow melt
plummeting spectacularly thousands of feet to our valley below. It may
have been July, but there was still plenty of snow up there that was
just now melting down to the glacier. (You can probably see a
couple of the thin waterfalls in the picture at right featuring Jess
and Pat Carnes).
Oddly enough none of this water was part of the glacier. Instead it
formed an underground river that emptied into the lake at right. Some
of the water reached the lake via the waterfall seen at right. Was
this area a beautiful sight? Take a guess.
The helicopter people like myself missed out on it, but the bus
visitors were treated to a wonderful sight at the foot of the glacier:
a rain forest garden.
I have only included a few of the photographs, but I can assure you
the vegetation was lush and bountiful. There were countless strange
flowers and flowering bushes and trees everywhere to behold.
They all had a strange pink or purple hue that I had never seen
In fact, the entire garden was so unusual I fantasized it could have
served as an Alien Landscape in a Star Wars.
Did I mention Juneau was stunning? On our bus ride back to the
ship, our bus driver talked about an afternoon walk to this peak and
last week's hike to that lake and tomorrow's trek to his best friend's
cabin for some fishing blah blah blah. I just wanted to tell him
to knock it off. Maybe I was a little envious. This place
is truly a paradise.
Texans Can Visit and Spend Money, but Need
We actually took two bus rides in Juneau on our way to and from the
helicopter port we used to visit Mendenhall Glacier.
One curious thing I learned during our first bus trip was that Texans
are not very popular here in Alaska. I have heard this sentiment
before in Colorado on many an occasion. There it makes more sense.
Since so many Texans own property and second homes in the state they
often act like they own the place.
But I was a little surprised to hear a similar attitude expressed as
far off as Juneau, Alaska!
It turns out that there has been bad blood between our states that
goes all the way back to the 1950s. At that time, Alaska was trying
desperately to win support for Statehood. Two senators in
particular were doing every thing in their power to block this move.
These Senators were from Texas. In fact, I believe a certain LBJ was
also opposed to the move.
After several tries, Alaska finally got enough support to win the vote
in 1959. However the Senators from Texas both voted against the
Since then, the Alaskans have neither forgotten nor forgiven Texas.
I was a little embarrassed by the impromptu tongue-lashing. I
was in the fourth grade here in Houston back in 1959. I
distinctly remember Texans weren't particularly happy about being
relegated to "Second Largest" by the addition of the 49th State.
The bitter joke at the time was "Alaska may be bigger, but wait till
the ice melts."
Sadly, that is exactly what is happening now. The ice is melting and
guess who the Alaskans blame?
They blame George Bush, a Texan, who is doing everything in his power
to open up the fragile tundra of North Alaska for oil drilling.
They blame all the Houston-based oil tycoons who they claim were
responsible for the Exxon Valdez disaster.
And they blame the Texas-controlled White House that is probably the
least environmentally-friendly administration in history for doing
nothing to fight the energy policies behind global warming.
Needless to say, once he realized he had a whole busload of Texans, we
got an earful from our bus driver. In fact, we inspired him to
tell us more. He told us in no uncertain terms that Alaskans are
not only the richest people in America thanks to oil profits, they
also distrust all forms of state and national government more than any
outsider can ever imagine.
They also distrust people who move to Alaska. Apparently they are
worried all the welfare people are going to start moving North to
Alaska in search of a free ride.
The bus driver concluded by saying all of us Lower 48 people can come
visit Alaska any time we want just as long as we promise not to stay.
He was actually a very interesting man. I was amused he couldn't
have cared less that he was carrying a busload of Texans. Didn't
bother him a bit. Besides, he had the microphone. The bus
was his personal soapbox.
I remember a fascinating TV show a few years back known as "Northern
Exposure." that was set in Alaska. More than anything else, the show
revealed an oddness and eccentricity about the Alaskan people.
For eight years their quirkiness
fascinated us city-folk in the Lower 48 who loyally watched the show.
It hinted that maybe all that ice, snow, and cold did "things" to
people. Or maybe it was the Northern Lights that did it.
Till now I hadn't realized how much that show had shaped my
preconception of the Alaskan people. But
I just couldn't help but think our irascible bus driver had stepped right
out of one of the plots.
After we returned from Mendenhall Glacier, our next adventure involved
taking a gondola ride to the top of Mt. Roberts.
I don't think there is any way to describe Juneau's geography without
a picture. Juneau is nestled into rolling hills at the foot of a
gigantic mountain named Mt. Roberts that suddenly shoots straight up
over a mile high! The first picture at right shows how tiny
little Juneau sits at the foot of Mt. Roberts.
Notice that when you get to the top of Mt. Roberts, there is another
range of even larger mountains just behind it. In other words,
if Juneau wants to expand, it needs to get wider because it sure isn't
going to get deeper. Someone already figured this out since
there is quite a bit of development going up on the island directly
across from Juneau. You should be able to notice a flatter terrain
across the channel where all the new homes are going up. This
area is considered Juneau's "River Oaks" and is home to Juneau's
Elite. Isn't it nice to know you can even have snobs in the
Arctic Circle? At least you can have the satisfaction of knowing
their nose is cold from being pointed upwards all the time.
Once you get to the top of Mt. Roberts, the terrain levels off and
creates the opportunity for a gorgeous mile-high nature walk that is
not really very steep at all. If you look at the picture at
right, you will see the trail drawn out in a very large meadow.
That nature trail was unbelievably beautiful. I love to walk at
the Houston Arboretum, but sadly our hometown nature walk doesn't hold
a candle to the thick rain-forest beauty up in the clouds above
Well over half our group took the tram ride to the top of Mt. Roberts.
There was a tourist lodge above that showed a video on the Tlingit
Indian culture and gave people a chance to drink coffee amid the
Did I mention just how steep the tram ride was? Oh goodness, it
seemed like we shot straight up in the air. Juneau is pure rain
forest. It rains constantly in this city which creates stunning
green panoramas as far as the eye can see. And those
ever-present misty clouds give the place an eerie ethereal quality to
Another curious thing I noted was the tramway was located right across
the street from the cruise ships. Our Radiance was not the only
cruise ship in Juneau. In fact for an entire week four different
cruise lines kept the identical itinerary.
As a result, on the day we were in Juneau, perhaps 7,000 tourists
descended on the city all at once. With the tramway situated
about 100 feet from our ship, imagine how many people take the
Astroworld ride at $20 a pop to the top of the mountain.
But I didn't feel cheated. Standing there on top of the world was an
absolutely wonderful experience. For a moment I was Odin up in
Valhalla staring at my vast domain.
As you can see from the pictures, it was marvelous to look down at our
cruise ship that suddenly looked like a toy boat in the bath tub.
Once our group got to the top of Mt. Roberts, we realized there was a
nature trail to explore. Marla, Marissa, Sam and I made the long
loop around. We had our breath taken away repeatedly by the
beauty of it all.
When we got back to the lodge, we ran into Gary Richardson. I
immediately talked him into going back up the trail. Marla and
Marissa weren't interested in doing it again, so Sam, Gary and I
headed off to explore further.
During this portion of the walk Sam had a great deal of fun at my
expense. First she gave me a long lecture on how I shouldn't eat
the berries. Then she made fun of a hole in my pants and the
fact that she could see my underwear. It didn't help that every now
and then she would stick her finger in the hole and make it bigger.
Then she blamed me for being so "unattractive" that I had scared off
every animal on the mountain.
I had to admit that last statement got under my skin. I had come to
Alaska to see "Abundant Wildlife" and so far had nothing to show for
my efforts at trundling through this rain forest.
Then it happened. We spotted an animal! Yes, indeed, a
dangerous primitive animal feeding in its natural habitat!
Was it a wolf? Was is it Caribou? Was it a moose? Was it an elk? Was it
a mountain goat? Was it a bear? Was it an eagle or a
No. It was an amazingly FAT squirrel-like animal known as a Marmot
(loosely rhymes with "varmint" and looks like one too. Hmmph).
This animal was totally unafraid of us. The three of us walked to
within two feet of it and it never even bothered to stop feeding. Gary
Richardson wondered if the animal was posing when he shot the
picture at right. The animal sat up and cocked its head so Gary
could get a better angle, then went right back to eating when he put
the camera down.
I suppose when 7,000 tourists a day drop into Juneau, after a while
you've seen one tourist, you've seen 'em all. This marmot could have
cared less about us. Thank goodness he found time to spare a
moment from his eating to allow us a snapshot.
Little did I know at the time, but that close encounter with the
deadly Marmot was to be my only sighting of an Alaskan animal.
Thousands of dollars spent on this trip to see Abundant Alaskan
Wildlife and all I get is this stupid Marmot who didn't even have the
respect to be afraid of me. "Bitter" doesn't even begin to sum
up my disappointment. And the one animal we do see turns out to
have an attitude.
Fortunately there were other things to do besides look around trying
spot a bunch of spoiled rotten, overfed animals. For example,
there were lovely ferns to be admired. And lofty snow-covered
peaks to be gazed at. And slender waterfalls descending from the
slowly melting snow fields. There were valleys and vistas and
there was lots of mud...
Yes, it decided to rain. Actually we were pretty lucky when it came to
rain. Friends of ours from previous trips had said the single
most important thing to pack was a good raincoat.
Taking that advice, before the trip I went to the Army Surplus Store
here in Houston and for $80 bought the finest poncho in stock... and
promptly forgot to bring it on this mountain hike. How was I
supposed to know there was a nature trail at the top of the mountain?
So I got wet. And I got cold. And I started to shiver. Meanwhile
my daughter Sam had brought her ski jacket which included a hood.
She reminded me of how STUPID I was to buy an $80 poncho and not even
think to bring it along. She asked me what did I bring in my back
pack to assist with survival. Under intense questioning I
admitted I had brought a computer chess game named "Friend" along.
Sam laughed in derision. "You are visiting one of the most beautiful
landscapes you will ever see in your entire life and you brought a
computer game along?"
"But what if I get bored?"
"You are so hopeless, Dad."
Sam thinks she's going to a good college. North Harris County
Community College Steno School sounds about right to me at this point.
Meanwhile rain, cold, mist and all, we kept climbing higher and higher. The
trail gives you a choice of making a Loop or heading up and up and up.
We decided to take the one that went up. We met up with a lot of
people from the group on the trail including Pat Salinas, Anne Fry,
Sandy Upchurch, Cathy Elzner, Greg Biasetti, Iqbal Nagji, Michelle
Spiris, Kevin Lee, Stacey Hupe, and Barbara Fuller.
Plus Cher Desperate Housewife Longoria, and Robert Goin' Somewhere
were up there too. As usual they were showing off how physically fit
they were. How obnoxious!!
Normally I like Cher and Robert a lot. They are cheerful, friendly,
funny people. But I didn't like them much on this trip. While I sat in
a helicopter looking at stuff, they did a nature hike. While I sat in
a train looking at stuff, they did a bicycle tour. While I sat in a
plane looking at stuff, they did a kayak trip. Every day while I
got fatter and fatter from four meals a day, they got slimmer,
trimmer, and happier. Who needs jerks like these spoiling your vacation?
One person I did like was Gary Richardson. As a rule, he was just as
sedentary as I was. He's a good man. I also am grateful
for his immense help at chronicling this trip. Gary Richardson was
kind enough to take many pictures of the members of our group. He even
took a shot of hole in my britches at Sam's request, but I decided to
spare all of you that particular photo.
Indeed it was a memorable afternoon climb. We were already a
mile high when we started our climb. According to trail maps we
managed to walk yet another half mile higher. The water below
began to look very distant as we stood in triumph on top of the world.
Iqbal, Sam, and I climbed the highest. It wasn't a dangerous climb at
all other than the encounter with the deadly killer marmot. But there
was still plenty of trail left when we decided to turn back around.
We had a deadline to meet on the last tram down the mountain and
decided not to risk getting stuck up there if another rain storm came
Once we got back to the lodge, I struck up a conversation with one of
the ladies who worked there. As I sipped a cup of coffee, we
talked about her heritage as a Tlingit Indian and how the members of
her tribe had slowly but surely assimilated into the white culture.
She said there was some occasional prejudice towards people of Indian
descent, but at this point there was so much intermarriage between the
whites and the Tlingit women (where else were the miners going to find
a wife?) that everyone in the Inside Passage part of the world was
completely laid back on the whole issue of race.
Instead all Alaskans have bonded against what they see is an invasion
by outsiders flocking to exploit Alaska's riches any way they can.
Like the bus driver before, Texans seem to get the brunt of their
wrath. The lady proceeded to tell me a joke that went something like
The lady had just moved with her husband to Juneau from
Texas. Soon her new neighbor, a native Alaskan woman, invited her over
one afternoon for tea to welcome her to the neighborhood. As they drank
their tea, they were conversing on a porch swing.
The Alaskan asked why they had come all the way from Texas. The Texas
lady, an obvious delicate flower of Southern womanhood, responded that
her husband worked as an executive for an oil company. Since their three
children were now in college, it was in his best interests to come to
Alaska. His large raise would cover their
tuition plus the move would
advance his career so they could eventually
On the one hand, the Texas lady supported his move. That
said, she let it drop that moving here was an enormous hardship on her.
The Texas woman said she had left behind an incredible home. She added,
"When my first child was born, my husband built a beautiful mansion for
me. Unfortunately we had to leave it behind."
The Alaskan woman commented, "Well, isn't that sad!!"
The Texas woman continued, "When my second child was born, my husband
bought me a fine Cadillac automobile and a new one
every year since then. Unfortunately we had to leave it
Again, the Alaskan lady commented, "Well, isn't that sad!!"
The Texas woman boasted, "Then when my third child was born, my husband
bought me this exquisite diamond bracelet!"
She paused to display it to the Alaskan woman, then continued. "At least I got to bring this
with me. Unfortunately I had to give up my membership in the country
club so I have no one important now to show it to."
Yet again, the Alaskan lady commented, "Well, isn't that sad!!"
The Texas woman then asked her companion, "Do
you have children?"
The Alaskan lady smiled and said she had one child who was in school
The Texas lady commented, "Oh, isn't that nice! What did your husband buy for
you when you had your first child?"
The Alaskan lady replied, "My husband sent me to charm school."
"Charm school!" the Texas woman cried, "Land sakes, child, what on earth
The Alaskan lady responded, "So that instead of saying 'who gives a
shit,' I learned to say, "Well, isn't that sad?"
So now you know what people think of Texans in these parts.
That said, with Mendenhall Glacier down the road and the Mt. Roberts
nature trail just a tram ride above and surrounded by Abundant
Wildlife, Juneau is a truly blessed area.
They probably would rather I not tell anyone how great this place is,
but tough. The cat's outta da bag.
Move to Alaska and be an intruder. Live there for free on the oil
profits that get distributed yearly to each and every Alaskan. Get a
kayak, visit the islands, take a daily hike and spend your days
visiting with the Abundant Wildlife. You could do worse than a
lifestyle like this, I promise.
And find that bus driver and tell him Rick sent you.