A DIY Trip Through Alaska’s Inside Passage

Posted May 22, 2018 6:59 p.m. EDT

Long before his extravagantly bearded profile appeared on postage stamps and commemorative coins, John Muir was a struggling travel writer. Muir, revered today as the founder of the Sierra Club and an early advocate for national parks, was largely unknown to America’s reading public in 1879 when he first departed San Francisco bound for Alaska’s mysterious Inside Passage, a seafaring route through the densely islanded panhandle of America’s northernmost territory.

His primary goal was to study Alaska’s glaciers; newspaper travelogues paid the bills. His adventures, guided hundreds of miles by Tlingit Indians paddling a dugout cedar canoe, became rhapsodic dispatches that found an enthusiastic audience. Within a few years, West Coast steamships were hawking Alaska sightseeing trips to the “frozen Niagara” of the Muir Glacier, a spectacular river of ice — today located in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve — discharging massive bergs from its 300-foot-high face.

Newspaper editors might have hired Muir solely on the basis of his expense reports; he endorsed sleeping on the ground and often carried little more than bread, a notebook and a change of underwear on his long rambles. Today’s prototypical Alaska visitor, a passenger on a weeklong Inside Passage cruise, expects a significantly higher level of comfort. These cruises, which generally run $1,000 to $4,000 a passenger, usually follow the aquatic path Muir popularized, departing from Seattle or Vancouver with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Two lucky cruise ships per day are permitted to enter Glacier Bay National Park and witness the icy CinemaScope glories immortalized in Muir’s classic “Travels in Alaska.” This route has become insanely popular: Last year, Alaska hosted more than 1 million cruise ship visitors, a number that continues to grow.

Muir, a spiritual rover who returned to Alaska again and again, would almost certainly not approve. More than a century before the first Instagram travel hashtag, he feared status-obsessed sightseers were content to check capital-N Nature’s greatest hits off their to-do lists one by one, “clinging to the battered highways like drowning sailors to a life-raft.”

The rigid structure of Alaska cruises had never appealed to me, either, but thumbing through an old copy of “Travels in Alaska” not long ago, I began to wonder if it was still possible to wander the Inside Passage serendipitously as its author had, “borne smoothly over calm blue waters, through the midst of countless forest-clad islands.” Fortunately, there’s a seagoing option that allows for flexibility and discovery: the Alaska Marine Highway System, a flotilla of utilitarian ferries sometimes known as the Blue Canoes, owing to their signature color scheme.

Alaskans are a seafaring people. Most of the state’s 740,000 residents live in towns and cities near the coast. The state’s huge size and crazy topography make road construction impractical; even Juneau, the capital, can be reached only by sea or air. The marine ferries are used primarily by Alaskans as an inexpensive way to move themselves and their vehicles from place to place as they read, work or watch the miles go by. I bought a couple of waterproof notebooks and flew off to join them.

Ferry travelers can book an austere room, or they can crash out in almost any public space. One popular budget option is to pitch a tent on the deck, which during peak season can feel like a Coachella campground with better scenery. Late on a Saturday evening in late May, I boarded the MV Kennicott in Bellingham, Washington, along with 300 other passengers and a few dozen cars, pickups and recreational vehicles, several of which bore bumper stickers reading “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Salmon.” At the purser’s desk I picked up the keys to a tiny roomette and splurged $3 for a cheery yellow sheet and scratchy bath towel that could have exfoliated an alligator. Two seats and a table folded into a narrow bed; I fell asleep almost instantly to the low hum of the engines. Very early the next morning, after a quick shower down the hall and a chat with a friendly, if nude, halibut fisherman, I peeked out at the tent village — just three campers on this run — and walked downstairs. The cafeteria opened at 4 a.m. and was hopping by 6. The menu reminded me of my high school lunchroom — cold cereal and scrambled eggs; burgers for lunch — a sensation amplified once seats filled up and people circled holding orange plastic trays, searching for a welcoming table. I snagged a spot next to Beau Bailey, a retired hydrologist and inveterate global traveler. He knew all about Muir’s visits north and had traveled up the Inside Passage multiple times. “This journey on the ferries is probably my favorite in the whole world,” he told me.

The trip from Bellingham to Ketchikan takes about 38 hours. Liberated briefly from cellular coverage, people completed crossword puzzles, read detective novels, played checkers and, mostly, shot the breeze with anyone and everyone. Longtime Alaska residents, nicknamed Sourdoughs, expressed relief to be returning from Outside, as Alaskans call the world beyond their state borders. As the green shoreline of British Columbia scrolled slowly past behind a blue-gray screen of mist, I thought of Muir’s last trip to Alaska, as a member of the Harriman Expedition in 1899. Muir and two-dozen other leading American naturalists had been invited as guests of railroad magnate Edward Harriman. When the scientists disembarked to stretch their legs amid this temperate rain forest, they encountered knee-deep mosses and nail-sized thorns, a land as impassable as the Amazon jungle.

We docked in Ketchikan around noon. When Muir last sailed through in 1899, this spot held a salmon cannery and a few shacks. Today, it is a metropolis by Alaska standards: home to 8,000 residents, a Starbucks and, on most summer days, several gleaming white monoliths: the 10-story cruise ships that dwarf the downtown. As the Inside Passage’s visitor numbers grow, so do its ships. This month, the first 4,000-passenger vessel entered service, to be eclipsed by a nearly 5,000-capacity one in 2019.

Ketchikan’s anarchic waterfront once hosted perhaps the greatest concentration of dive bars in America. It’s now thick with shops pushing souvenir T-shirts and knickknacks. The forecast called for rain, as it usually does in Southeast Alaska. I returned early to the ferry terminal to wait for the midnight boarding of the northbound MV Matanuska. Inspired by Muir (and trying to save a few bucks), I attempted, unsuccessfully, to sleep on the extremely hard deck of the observation lounge, wrapped in a thin acrylic blanket with my backpack as a pillow. Each time I opened my eyes, a teenage girl sprawled out on an inflatable sleeping pad stared at me smugly from behind a row of seats.

The Matanuska docked in Wrangell around 7 the next morning. I dropped my bag at the Wrangell Extended Stay and Trading Post. A sign in the hotel’s front window advertised for beaver, mink and otter furs, which the owners, Mike and Lydia Matney, sewed into hats and mittens. The ferry schedule left me with several days in Wrangell, a former timber town Muir described as “a rough place,” and with good reason. Upon returning in 1880 for his second glacier-seeking expedition, he learned that the Tlingit chief who had guided him the year before had been shot dead.

Matney told me to borrow his truck if I wanted to have a look around — he left the keys in the ignition, a common practice in Alaska. I decided to explore on foot. Much of Wrangell looked unchanged since 1899: false-front buildings and clapboard churches, including one where Muir had mooched a night sleeping on the floor his first night on Alaska soil. The supermarkets are closed Sunday, and an Elks Lodge anchors the busiest intersection. “I sometimes feel bad for kids who grow up on Wrangell Island,” Matney shouted aboard his boat one afternoon. He and Lydia had invited me out to check their very full Dungeness crab pots. “But then I think about kids like that.” He pointed at two boys, probably 10 and 12, out on the water unchaperoned and fishing from what looked like a motorized rowboat; they had recently hauled in a prize king salmon. Wrangell had felt familiar from the moment I arrived, and I finally realized why: It was one of those old Western towns, like Aspen or Mendocino, that everyone says you should have seen before the money arrived.

In 1899, when Muir stopped in Juneau with the Harriman Expedition, the gold rush was in full swing. Nowadays, Alaska’s economy runs on oil. A 2008 spike in gas prices paid for the gorgeous new $140 million State Libraries, Archives and Museum, where I browsed through the 12 beautiful bound volumes of “The Harriman Alaska Series,” chronicles compiled by Muir and his fellow naturalists. The series had a huge influence on President Theodore Roosevelt’s decision to preserve what is now the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest, the scenic wilderness that encompasses most of Alaska’s Inside Passage.

For more than a week I had subsisted largely on coffee, fried halibut sandwiches and the Alaskan Brewing Co.'s Icy Bay IPA, which is sold pretty much everywhere in the state (including aboard the ferries). The company’s Juneau brewery offered a flight of more obscure flavors, including an especially tasty one brewed with local spruce tips. Slightly tipsy on tips, I splurged on a bowl of miso ramen with salmon chorizo at the Rookery Café and a king-size bed at the Westmark Baranof Hotel, where state legislators have been caught accepting bribes from oil industry executives.

Downtown Juneau is small and hilly, like a pocket-size San Francisco, and easy to navigate. I had a day to spare before my next ferry, so I caught a $2 city bus that dropped me off about a mile from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. I arrived an hour before the daily cruise-ship shuttles started unloading and so had the place almost to myself. The glacier, a frozen river that winds back 13 miles, is as spectacular as anything in Yellowstone. Blessed with a sunny day, I couldn’t resist hiking a few hours out to the Mendenhall Ice Caves, an ice cathedral inside the glacier, illuminated as if through indigo stained glass. I recognized the hue immediately: Muir had described it as “the most startling, chilling, almost shrieking vitriol blue.” (Sadly, there are no longer ice caves reachable by foot. The ones that remain require special expertise and equipment.)

The next leg on my DIY Passage voyage was on the MV Columbia, which runs from Juneau to Haines, via Lynn Canal, a 90-mile-long fjord lined with glaciers and snow-capped mountains. Occasionally a passenger would spot some wildlife — a black bear, a pod of dolphins, the splash of a whale’s tail. The captain announced it over the PA system, and everyone rushed to one side of the boat.

Haines and Skagway, both of which sit near the top of Lynn Canal, are two of Alaska’s three Inside Passage towns connected to the road system. (The third road-accessible town, Hyder, population 87, uses a British Columbia area code, and its bars accept Canadian dollars.) Skagway is unabashedly touristy, welcoming as many as 10,000 cruise ship visitors on a summer day.

Haines, which sees less than a tenth of Skagway’s cruise tourism, is often cited as the inspiration for the quirky ‘90s TV series “Northern Exposure.” Much like its fictional counterpart, it has a hyperlocal radio station, KHNS, that intersperses eclectic music playlists with announcements about lost wallets, weekly vinyasa classes and exhibits at the Hammer Museum, devoted exclusively to a certain tool. Both the real and the TV town are populated by Alaska characters who would be considered eccentric elsewhere. David Nanney, the founder of the Haines John Muir Association and operator of the Chilkat Eagle B-and-B, collected me at the ferry terminal. He wore fingerless gloves, a visor adorned with flames, and a timepiece on each wrist. The back of his SUV was littered with kites. “You never know when you’ll get the sudden urge to fly a kite,” he said as we drove toward town.

Nanney related the story of Muir’s first visit to the area, which was a stronghold of the feared Chilkat Tlingit tribe. The Chilkats liked S. Hall Young, Muir’s proselytizing companion, and granted him permission to build a Presbyterian school and mission that grew to become Haines. They loved Muir, whose famous dictum, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” emphasized the interconnectedness of all things, an attitude that echoed the animist worldview of the Chilkats.

Haines bills itself as the Adventure Capital of Alaska, which is a little like claiming the title Corn Capital of Iowa, although the town does boast world-class hiking trails, and perhaps a third of the vehicles I saw had bikes or kayaks strapped to their roofs. To me, Haines’ chief attractions were its near-laboratory conditions for idling: a pedestrian-friendly layout; an excellent coffee shop with picnic tables where dogs lounged at their owners’ feet; a superb library and bookstore; and perhaps the prettiest setting in Southeast Alaska, snow-capped mountains that rise almost straight out of Lynn Canal, a topographic contrast Himalayan in scale.

I knew exactly where I was going to finish my Inside Passage trip even before I finished reading the transcendent chapter “The Discovery of Glacier Bay” in “Travels in Alaska.” For it was in this bay that Muir unexpectedly encountered “a picture of icy wilderness unspeakably pure and sublime.”

Gustavus, the tiny town that serves as the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park, is one of the fastest-growing municipalities in Alaska — by acreage, anyway. Over recent decades, average air temperatures near Glacier Bay have increased, and billions of tons of ice have melted. This weight loss causes the land to rebound about 2 inches per year. One family has reclaimed enough solid ground from the surrounding waters to open a nine-hole golf course. Kim Heacox, a former park ranger who has written extensively on Muir’s time in Alaska, drove me down to the tidal flats to see where his adopted hometown was expanding. “This is land being born, man,” he said. “That still amazes me.”

Gustavus is about 20 minutes from Juneau by air — a four-to-six-hour ferry ride is also offered twice weekly in summer — yet, because it is hemmed in by snowy mountains, feels a million miles from anywhere. (It helps that its dock is too small to accommodate cruise ships.) There’s no downtown, just an intersection called the Four Corners, where you can find an art gallery and cafe, a transplanted 1930s gas station, and the Sunnyside Market, which sells excellent sandwiches and a wide variety of natural and organic foods.

My rain-free streak continued, and I passed two gorgeous days riding one of Heacox’s old mountain bikes up and down the main road, past moose and fields of purple lupine. (The town’s official website also recommends hitchhiking as a mode of transport.) At the historic Gustavus Inn, I shared a family-style meal prepared with ingredients from the garden, seated with some congenial Colorado farmers who had come up for salmon season and insisted that climate change was a hoax.

In 1899, the Harriman’s luxury steamship spent several days anchored in front of Muir’s namesake glacier, bobbing in a slurry of newly birthed icebergs a safe distance from what Muir once called “the tremendous threatening cliffs of the discharging wall.” Eager to see some calving glaciers, I booked the final leg of my marine journey on the Glacier Bay tour boat out of Bartlett Cove. The full-day, 130-mile round-trip circuit of the bay provides an excellent narration by a National Park Service naturalist in a Smokey Bear hat, as well as a cold lunch and unlimited coffee. (Icy Bay IPA is, of course, available for purchase.)

We motored slowly past a chunk of rock swarming with bald eagles on top and sea lions below, and approached the spot that, in the 1890s, had marked the terminus of Muir Glacier. The inlet was now open water. The onboard ranger explained that the onetime showpiece of Glacier Bay had receded out of sight, a retreat of more than 30 miles since Muir first saw it.

Continuing north, we eventually stopped in front of the Margerie Glacier and parked next to a gigantic cruise ship. Every 10 minutes or so, a thunderclap rang out and a chunk of ice plummeted from the Margerie’s mile-wide blue face, creating an epic splash. The effect was spellbinding.

Glaciers advance and retreat; that’s their natural cycle. But the tidewater glaciers of Alaska — those that extend to the water’s edge — are almost entirely in retreat these days. The causes are complicated, and Glacier Bay’s ice has been receding since the mid-1700s, but human-caused climate change is accelerating the process. Even the most remote corners of the Last Frontier are hitched to everything else in the universe. It seems likely that the Alaska writings of John Muir will outlast the ice that inspired them.

We lingered of the Margerie for half an hour, entranced by its beautiful violence, then turned back toward Gustavus, borne smoothly over calm blue waters.