Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cruising the Glaciers in Alaska

Alaska, the United States 49th and largest state, sits on the Arctic Circle. Comfortable ocean-going cruise ships take you exploring deep into the rugged Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska. These cruises take you close to snow covered mountains, glaciers, fjords, deep clear waters, fascinating marine life, and the culture of what is called ‘America’s Last Frontier’. 

Typically departing from Vancouver, British Colombia, cruises normally last a minimum of a week taking in the Inside Passage and go to places like Icy Strait Point, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and take in impressive glaciers like the Hubbard Glacier.

Top end of Tarr Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park. Margerie Glacier (left foreground) and Grand Pacific Glacier (right background) (Photo:Lgcharlot) 

Glacier Bay National Park
Everywhere you look, huge glaciers are tumbling into the sea. Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in Alaska and has a face of around 10 kilometres. Here you can see tidal glaciers that meet the sea; coastal islands spread over more than three million acres, and beautiful fjords. 

Glacier Bay was only discovered as late as 1879 by John Muir because when ships sailed past a hundred years earlier, the bay was blocked from sight by a wall of ice. In the past 200 years the ice has slowly retreated to reveal the stark and incredibly beautiful landscape that is being gradually taken over by vegetation. The Tarr Inlet at the head of Glacier Bay is where rock believed to be over 200 million year old has been found. This is where you can see the Grand Pacific Glacier which is slowly making its way towards the Margerie Glacier, which it was last joined to back in 1912. Passing the Fairweather Range into the Johns Hopkins Inlet you can see nine glaciers with a backdrop of rock that stretches up to the sky for over 2,000 metres.

Frontier towns  

The old rush towns and ports on the fringes of civilization at Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan are worth a visit.

Juneau is the state capital of Alaska and can be accessed only by ship or plane. Named after Joe Juneau, a gold prospector in the 1880s, following his discovery of gold, three of the largest gold mines were developed and by 1945, over $150 million in gold had been mined from here. Though these mines have now closed, the town Joe Juneau founded became the capital of Alaska and it continues as an administrative centre for the state. About 30,000 people live here, but in area (8412 square kilometres), it forms one of the largest towns in the world.

Known as Alaska’s ‘First City’, Ketchikan is the first major settlement coming up northward and located on an island. Ketchikan first started as an Indian fishing village and while settlers came for gold elsewhere in Alaska, fishing and timber industries were developed here, making this Inside Passage port Alaska's fourth-largest city. It has a rich Native heritage, which at the Totem Heritage Center includes the world's oldest and largest collection of totem poles.

Skagway, gateway to the Klondike boomed from 1897 when gold was discovered there, when thousands of prospectors came from all over North America and beyond. The historic district of the town still has about a hundred gold-rush buildings and a small cemetery that are worth a visit. Many would-be miners died along the treacherous Chilkoot Trail from here the gold. By 1898, Skagway was Alaska's biggest settlement with a population of about 20,000. When the gold yield dwindled just two years later however, most of the miners quickly left, shifting their sights elsewhere. Nowadays Skagway has fewer than 1,000 residents, but the town still hangs on to its memories of the gold rush era.

Alaska wildlife
Icy Strait Point is a favourite place to watch humpback whales. The most commonly sighted whales in Alaska are killer whales and humpbacks. One of the world's most endangered species of whales, the humpback surfaces throughout the Inside Passage, Prince William Sound and Glacier Bay. 

The Orca or Killer Whale is recognizable by its tall black tail and can be seen throughout the Alaska cruise area, in particular western Johnstone Strait where they congregate to feed on salmon in the summer. 

The Beluga whales are called "sea canaries" because of their variety of calls and these small whales (to 7 metres) are typically seen along the shores of the Bering Sea and Arctic Oceans, though can stray as far south as Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm in the summer. Bowhead whales are a little larger and live near sea ice margins migrating up through the Chukchi Sea into the Beaufort Sea for the summer. Gray whales are baleen whale or filter feeders are agile swimmers, sometimes seen spyhopping where they poke their head up to three metres out of the water, turning slowly to take a look around. Whales can sometimes be seen lobtailing and slapping, where they lift their tail out of the water and smack it hard on the water.

Humpback whale breaching, throwing itself back out of the water to splash down on its back (Photo: White Rich guy) Image source:

In addition, it is not difficult to catch sightings of the many seabirds, migratory ducks and geese, seals, sea lions, sea otters, walruses, and porpoises that live in or by the sea. 

Many species of fish can be found in the sea and rivers: Pacific octopus, several species of salmon and trout, halibut, Arctic char, Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, northern pike, whitefish, lingcod, salmon shark and burbot.

Whether you want to admire the majesty of impressive glaciers, go whale watching or learn about the gold rush, Alaskan cruises offer a comfortable and easy way to explore the majesty of this still largely pristine and beautiful area. Photo credits: Wikipedia: Lgcharlot & White Rich guy