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Alaskan Wildlife

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

One of the most exciting features of an Alaska cruise is the chance to view wildlife from the deck of your ship - or, if you take an expedition-style cruise or an adventurous shore excursion, from your own kayak or skiff. You might also spot a variety of animals on a land tour before or after your cruise. You'll be aided considerably in this if you carry a good pair of binoculars. Binoculars allow you not only to magnify your vision, but to keep a safe distance, which is good both for you and the animals. 

On water, whales top most passengers' wish lists. And it's a rare cruise that doesn't come across a sizeable number of them. Humpbacks are the most common, but you might also spot migrating gray whales in late spring and white Beluga whales if you venture into the more northerly waters lining the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage. Alaska is the primary feeding ground for humpbacks, which can weigh 30 to 40 tons, grow to 40 feet in length, and migrate to Hawaii or Mexico in the colder months. They often travel in groups of six or eight, which makes it easier to see them, and they're quite acrobatic and playful, making them the whale-watchers' favorite. The best way to spot whales is to watch for their spouts, which resemble little puffs of smoke or mist rising from the sea as they surface. Keep your eyes or binoculars trained on that same general area, because they'll likely surface again near there within a few minutes. Seeing a whale breach - surging to the surface and then diving back headlong into the water, with their tails flipping high in the air before going under again - is one of the great thrills of any Alaskan cruise. Watching for spouts is also a good way to spot porpoises, also high on most passenger checklists. The most common varieties in Alaska are harbor porpoises and super-speedy Dall's porpoises. 

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Inside Passage Ports

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

Most Inside Passage cruises include at least three of what we'll call The Big Four ports: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau and Skagway, so we'll look at these first. Later we'll look at lesser-visited ports in the Inside Passage region, and then turn to ports in the Gulf of Alaska and British Columbia.  

Ketchikan is the first city you come to when traveling north into Alaska by ship, and most cruise ships and ferries sailing Alaska's Inside Passage make it their first port of call, earning it the sobriquet "Alaska's First City." Located along Tongass Narrows on Revillagigedo Island, Ketchikan boasts other self-anointed titles as well, among them "Canned Salmon Capital of the World." The latter title pays homage to the town's founding as a fishing camp and its history as a canning town dating back to the turn of the 20th century. (Alaskan native peoples had lived and fished on the banks of the Ketchikan River for thousands of years, however.) With a population of around 8,000 (and 15,000 in the area), Ketchikan is now Alaska's fifth largest city, yet the downtown is compact and fun to walk around, especially along its colorful wooden boardwalks that cross creeks and evoke the town's early frontier atmosphere.  Built at the foot of and into the sides of steep green hills and mountains, Ketchikan is also suited to grabbing high-up views - if you can see through the mists, that is. It's one of the nation's wettest cities, receiving a drenching of 162 inches of rain a year. That's 13.5 feet of annual precipitation - making it the rainiest town in Southeast Alaska (no small feat in itself) and much rainier than famously wet Seattle, Washington. Ketchikan residents soak it all in with good cheer and seem to take perverse pride in not using umbrellas - though they do at least like to keep their feet dry, favoring the ubiquitous high boots dubbed "Ketchikan sneakers." 

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Icebergs - Glacier "Offpsring"

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

The life of an iceberg typically begins with that thunderous roar the Tlingits called "white thunder," as ice splits off a glacier when it reaches the sea. The iceberg then begins its free-floating journey through the water, a type of mobile freshwater ice island that typically follows the prevailing currents. Depending on its size, the water and air temperature, and other conditions, the iceberg might survive anywhere from a few days or weeks to several years. Eventually, it breaks up and melts away - often far from where it originated (icebergs can drift six miles a day or more, depending on their size and shape, as well as on wind speed, waves and currents).  

While icebergs - which take their name from the Dutch word ijsberg, meaning "mountain of ice" - are most often associated with Greenland and Antarctica, cruise ship passengers can most easily view them in Alaska, where hundreds of glaciers reach right down to the water. When these rivers of ice, propelled by their own weight, complete their glacially slow flow from mountaintop to the sea, they "calve" icebergs in one of nature's rawest displays of power. And on itineraries that include Glacier Bay National Park, Hubbard Glacier, Tracy Arm fjord, College fjord and other sites, ship passengers are virtually guaranteed close-up views of the action, complete with riveting visuals and sound effects of crashing and splashing. Once calved, icebergs prove much more than mere mountainous chunks of ice. 

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The Inside Passage

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

The Inside Passage is the world's longest marine highway, stretching more than 1,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington, through southwestern Canada to Skagway, Alaska. The portion of the Inside Passage within Alaska itself is about 500 miles long, ranging from Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan in the south to Skagway and Haines in the north. All Southeast Alaska communities are linked by this "highway," which is actually a network of connecting waterways. Both commercial and pleasure boats regularly ply the route - the latter mostly in summer, while commercial vessels and passenger ferries operate year-round there. Since almost every Alaska cruise focuses either entirely on the Inside Passage or includes it as part of a voyage between Seattle/Vancouver and the Gulf of Alaska, this is the section of Alaska that virtually all passengers will experience. Within the Inside Passage - also sometimes called "Southeast Alaska" and "the Panhandle" - are some 1,000 islands and 10,000 miles of shoreline. 

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Gulf of Alaska Ports

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

Cordova is served by daily ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System coming from Whittier and Valdez, which dock at 201 Orca Ave., one mile north of city center at Copper River Highway. Small ship cruise lines dock at the harbor.  Frequent air service is available from Anchorage and Juneau.  

The small town of Seward, which has about 3,000 residents, was named after William H. Seward, who was U.S. of Secretary of State when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Dating from the early 20th century, Seward enjoys a gorgeous Kenai Mountain setting on Resurrection Bay, which does not ice over in winter. Today it's a haven for commercial fishermen, cannery workers and tourist outfitters, including charter boat operators and cruise line workers. If your cruise is departing from "Anchorage," chances are you'll actually be leaving from the port of Seward(or, alternatively, from Whittier), since Anchorage does not have a working cruise ship port. Cruise lines originating from the Port of Seward include Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland-America and Regent Seven Seas.  



Sailing in Seward

Seward is the starting point for the Alaska Railroad, which runs northwest to Anchorage and beyond. If you head south, Seward serves as the gateway to the stunning Kenai Fords National Park (which is mostly viewable from the water or the air). This region is one of the favorite getaway destinations for folks from the Anchorage area; the city itself is just 130 miles north, and the views along scenic Seward Highway (state highways 1 and 9), a National Scenic Byway, are among the most beautiful of any U.S. roadway, with forests, waterfalls, mountains and glaciers. Bad weather, of course, can always intrude in Alaska, so come prepared for rain and cool temperatures even in the height of summer. 

Travel Information
 
Seward Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau
PO Box 749, Seward, AK 99664
tel. 907-224-8051
www.seward.com  

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