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A Ferry Cruise to Alaska

Every year, millions of visitors from around the world come to take a cruise from British Columbia to Alaska. Not only do they enjoy to luxuries of the ship, but they get a chance to bask in the beauty and history of B.C.’s northern coast.

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couple aboard a ferry.

I stood on the deck and watched the scene unfold. Green-velvet mountains rose up straight out of the sea, while whales surfaced in the distance. Beside me, a woman gasped, “What are those?” “Humpbacks,” came three answers at once.

The moment was typical of any cruise to Alaska, but the ship was different. Sure, we had a cabin, and even deck chairs. But we’d intentionally skipped the fancy cruise ship-and the fancy price. Instead, we were making our way north by ferry.

Cruise ships carry just over one million tourists a year through the protected waters of the Inside Passage. The route, through northern British Columbia and southern Alaska, winds over 700 nautical miles and has become famous for its vibrant marine life and glacier-capped mountains.

I boarded the B.C. Ferry M/V Northern Adventure with my family in Port Hardy, at the northern end of Vancouver Island, and headed for Prince Rupert, 274 nautical miles north. Having grown up with BC Ferries, I never minded their utilitarian styling. But this-a posh ferry with a variety of lounges (some with movies), multiple restaurants (serving everything from grilled salmon to Thai curries), a children’s play area and an impressive gift shop-caught me off guard.

As quickly as I could, I had headed out on deck. Countless glacier-fed waterfalls tumbled down from the mountains. At times the channel would narrow and we drew so close to the falls it seemed we should feel the spray.

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Prince Rupert’s Rich History

Fifteen hours and several whale and dolphin sightings after setting off, we saw the twinkling lights of civilization. The ferry threaded its way into a busy fishing harbour and pulled in to Prince Rupert, a town of 14,600 on B.C.’s north coast, 40km from the Alaskan border.

At first glance it seems as though much of the town is devoted to stores and services for northerners, but the favourite area for tourists is Cow Bay-a pretty collection of shops and restaurants that overlooks the harbour. Nearby, the Museum of Northern B.C. occupies a modern version of a traditional longhouse and gives an excellent regional overview. Beginning with the ice age, we explored a timeline that emphasized First Nations’ culture and art. Then I ended up in the gift shop, which was handy, because it had a very nice selection of hand-knit toques-necessary in a place that’s ranked first in Canada for coolest summer temperatures.

From the museum, we headed out of town to the North Pacific Village National Historic Site. Built on pilings that cling to the mountainous edge of the Skeena River, the 1889 salmon cannery housed fishermen, boat builders, shopkeepers and schoolteachers. The village’s isolation was a stark reminder of how self-sufficient early communities needed to be.

Despite the fact that 65 cruise ships disembark over 100,000 passengers during Prince Rupert’s May-through-September cruise season, both the historic village and museum were virtually empty of tourists. The ships are in port only a couple of days a week, so, on non-cruise days like this, the cannery curator told us, “Regular folk have their run of the place.”

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Bears in Sanctuary

Early the next morning we headed north into the misty fjords that make up the Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-Deen Grizzly Sanctuary with Prince Rupert Adventure tours. Our boat driver, Owen Green, said he’d seen a half-dozen bears the previous day. But it took some searching before we saw our first bear, munching on high-protein sedge grass.

Green said not many of the younger cubs had returned from hibernation yet. He hoped they would soon, but the diminished salmon run coupled with a long winter had him worried. The Khutzeymateen is only thought to protect a dwindling population of about 50 bears.

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Alaska’s Wild Beauty

The next day we boarded the Alaskan State Ferry M/V Taku for the 30-hour trip to Juneau, Alaska. In the stairwell we were reminded by a sign to “wear no sheath knives aboard.” In the outdated lounge, logger/fishermen/hunter types ordered discount beers at the faux-leather padded bar. Unlike on the Northern Adventure, the Taku only had one restaurant; after a dinner of old-tasting salmon and fries I started to miss our previous ferry’s menu. Like B.C. Ferries, Alaska also offered interpretive talks describing the landscape and the cultural history.

There are more towns and villages in Alaska than in Northern B.C. and the ferry stopped at several. In Kake, a small settlement of 700 or so that sports the world’s tallest totem pole, we were told we could again get off the boat and explore. As I walked north, glacier-rounded mountains gave way to jagged snowy peaks.

It was early evening on the second day when we sighted Juneau, a low colourful town perched along the shore. A large white church dominated the town but even that was dwarfed by the Mendenhall Glacier, a slab of ice and snow that blanketed the town’s mountain backdrop.

Driving off the ferry we headed to the campground at the Mendenhall Glacier. For $10 a night we set up our camp on the edge of a glacial lake and sipped beer in the late evening sun while icebergs floated by.

After a day hike on a lush rocky trail near the ice field, we boarded our final ferry north to Skagway. This time I was on a modern fast ferry and the six-hour trip, to the same port where gold-seeking stampeders once set off along the Chilkoot Pass trail for the Klondike, seemed to fly by. The mountains looked higher and starker as they merged with gathering storm clouds.

In the ferry lounge, a teacher, whose Texan accent had been tempered by his years in Alaska, explained what brought his family to the north. “We came because it seemed fixed-in-time. Unchanging. We’ve stayed because it’s not.”

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Prince Rupert: