GO WITH THE FLOE
With a song in her heart, Leonie Coombes ventures north to Alaska
MOST of the passengers boarding Sun Princess in Seattle must have the 1960 Johnny Horton song North to Alaska running through their heads. That’s because most of these Alaska-bound travellers were the boppers of that era and what else would they be humming?
There is a scarcity of hot hits written about the frigid 49th state, so we have to thank Horton for providing us with one. Besides, as an anthem for our Alaskan cruise, it is not entirely off the mark.
Big Sam, the song’s hero, left Seattle in the year of 1892, headed for the Yukon, and soon after found gold. We cruisers are not actively seeking gold, nor is it necessary to do so. In our Alaskan ports of call it will find us.
Our journey starts with 36 glorious hours at sea tracing a route through a maze of islands called the Inside Passage, off the western Canadian and Alaskan coasts. The sun is shining, orca whales are sighted and checked rugs cover passengers snoozing in deckchairs. Children thrash about in the pool, defying the chill in the air.
Sun Princess is a floating resort catering to all tastes. However, the captain’s cocktail party is a shipboard institution and almost everybody seizes the opportunity to socialise with the chap who commands the ship. Putting on formal attire in broad daylight feels incongruous, but that is what happens in the land of the midnight sun.
After a welcoming address our British captain, Nick Carlton, informs us the weather is not looking so promising for the next day. Sure enough, we find the port of Ketchikan is drizzly; its brightly painted buildings sit squat at the base of misty, snow-capped hills that soar above damp forests. Rain is the norm here in summer.
But weather never stopped a keen fisherman. A handful of us board Watchagot, a 10m cabin cruiser owned by retired coast guard officer Ken Wright. His partner, Patti Bishop, the daughter of an Alaskan fisherman, is at the wheel. They keep us entertained with local knowledge and wry quips when rain forces periodic retreats into the boat’s cabin. Nothing is biting but the cold; May is a bit early in the season for good fishing, but bald eagles swoop by with aeronautical precision when Ken throws lumps of herring.
Then we get a strike and it is on my rod. I haul in a king salmon that would feed four people, but Ken is disdainful. ‘‘ Just a shaker,’’ he declares. In Alaska-speak this means it’s undersized, so shake it off. My salmon swims away, joyfully rejected like an extra in a John West advertisement.
Back in town, touristy Creek Street draws crowds. This elevated boardwalk suspended beside a rushing stream fronts a row of gentrified timber souvenir stores that were bars
and brothels a century ago. Big Sam would be disappointed by the changes. Dolly’s House, ‘‘ where both the men and the salmon came upstream to spawn’’, is a demure museum. Ketchikan could just as well be called Kitschikan but tourism is this town’s lifeblood since the decline of the fishing and timber industries.
At 6am the next day we enter Tracy Arm, one of the world’s most breathtaking fjords and a trip highlight. I wake and step on to my freezing balcony, but the impact of this vista binds me to the spot. The ship is gliding slowly on mirror-flat water in a deep, narrow gorge strewn with icebergs that have snapped off glaciers and become drifting sculptures. All around us are the seven million hectares of Tongass National Forest. Spruce, hemlock, elderberry and cedar stand shoulder to shoulder on snow-capped granite peaks slashed by waterfalls.
Spectacular is too modest a description for all this. Horton’s hit song just doesn’t fit here. So rhapsodic is this sight, we need a symphony orchestra on the deck playing Rachmaninoff. And, speaking of Russians, what were they thinking in 1867 when they sold Alaska to the US for $US7 million? It is now the largest state in the union, and gold was soon followed by oil and gas discoveries.
Back in Tracy Arm, the Sun Princess’s sister ship Golden Princess passes and for a moment it is a royal procession of liners in this majestic setting. Keen photographers on both vessels fill memory cards.
Later we dock at Juneau, the state capital. A cable-car ride from the city centre gives a stunning view of the Sun Princess docked in the Gastineau Channel. Ten-storey-high buildings are also revealed, quite a contrast to the other low-slung Alaskan frontier towns. Yet no roads run into this popular destination. The locals have a saying (and it is such a hoot that we hear it often) that the only way into Juneau is by plane, boat or birth canal.
Helicopter and dog sled are other options. A shore tour to a husky camp looks interesting, especially since dog mushing is Alaska’s state sport. But the thrill of a chopper ride to the dramatic Mendenhall Glacier proves more inviting. After being kitted out in waterproof clothing, boots and helmets, we hover above a frozen expanse bejewelled with sapphire pools: a trick of refraction. Though retreating, it will be centuries before this massive 19km-long formation is an ice cube.
We land where a guide, Jared Carlson, waits to take us on a short but strenuous trek. Next year he will feature as a solo cellist with the Juneau Symphony Orchestra and I wonder if he practises on the glacier, a concert hall available to few.
The next day in Skagway, Horton is back, silencing sensitive music. Big Sam would have known this place well because Skagway was founded in 1887 at the time of the stampede to the Klondike. It became the provisioning point where miners bought the one ton of supplies without which the Canadian Mounties would not let them cross the border.
Skagway is a bit like Ketchikan, retaining its historic flavour but kept alive by the tsunami of tourists who pour off cruise ships each day. Waiting just metres from the ship is the town’s main attraction, the White Pass and Yukon Route, a narrow-gauge train ride that follows the gold rush trail.
This is a three-hour wild west adventure on one of the most challenging railways built. Our rattling ascent to increasingly snowy heights is undertaken in old-fashioned parlour cars heated by oil stoves. Cameras are busy as we wind over high passes and through tunnels to desolate places such as Dead Horse Gulch, where thousands of men once camped in sub-zero temperatures.
At White Pass on the Canadian border, 887m above Skagway, we turn around. A brown bear is standing on a rock regarding our descent.
Gold is still here but now you only have to walk through Skagway to find it. As in Ketchikan there are a disproportionate number of jewellery stores lining the streets and I resist their glittering cabinets, but uneasily. Maybe this bling thing is culturally embedded and I have failed to see into the heart of Alaska.
I ponder this notion on the way to the Sun Princess, weighed down by a sweater with reindeers on it and a large supply of chocolate nuts called Moose Poo.
How effortlessly does cruising carry one from wild back to mild. Just 48 hours out of Skagway and the frontier is becoming a memory as we cruise down the coast of Vancouver Island to Victoria, the dignified capital city of British Columbia.
Decorum and gentility abound at the Empress Hotel. This vast, stately chateau facing Victoria’s harbour was constructed entirely from timber in 1908, and just shy of 100 years later, its creaky Edwardian formality is in no way diminished. Still the haunt of royals, we soak up some of its elegant midcity style on the wide veranda and drink a toast to cruising.
At 7am the following morning, the Sun Princess arrives back in Seattle. This prosperous food and wine-loving city is so inviting with its colourful produce markets, watery setting and nearby ski fields that I seriously wonder how Big Sam dragged himself away in 1892.
These days, with Boeing here and Microsoft too, he would probably land a job and invest some venture capital in gold mining. Using the profits, he could then travel to Alaska in style on a Princess cruise. Leonie Coombes was a guest of Princess Cruises.
Eight Princess ships cover the Alaskan route during the northern summer. More: 132 488; www.princess.com.au.
Freeze frame: Passengers gaze in awe as Sun Princess glides among floating ice sculptures in Tracy Arm fjord, one of the highlights of the cruise ship’s passage along the western coast of Canada and up to Alaska
Wild west: Sun Princess explores Alaska’s rugged coastline