Alaskan Cruise

Part 1 of 2. Touring the Inside Passage

David Smitherman
12 min readMar 18, 2024

Alaska is huge, and a beautiful wilderness that seems unending. On this journey we began in Vancouver, and spent a week exploring the Inside Passage from the cruise ship Zuiderdam.

The Zuiderdam.

The Inside Passage is a peninsula of land that stretches to the southeast along the west coast from Glacier Bay in Alaska, to Vancouver British Columbia, and Seattle Washington. It has mountainous terrain where many islands create numerous water routes protected from the wind and rough seas of the Pacific Ocean. The Alaska state capitol is located there, in Juneau, along with many other small settlements along the coastal islands.

One of our first new experiences were the sites and activities around Vancouver Harbor. Beautiful views of downtown Vancouver, the surrounding mountains, and all types of vessels traversing across the harbor, with seaplanes taking off and landing.

Downtown Vancouver British Columbia, and a busy Vancouver Harbor.

Unique to the Inside Passage are the many boats, ferries, helicopters, and seaplanes used for everyday transportation. The mountains are so rugged along the coast that major road systems can be difficult to build, so connections to places like Juneau are made primarily by sea and air.

It seemed late when we left port, we found dinner for the evening, and rested from the busy day. The next morning we were out at sea.

Days 1 and 7. At Sea

Our first full day out of Vancouver, and our last returning day back to Vancouver, were spent at Sea. We spent most of that time enjoying the amenities on board, which you can read about in Part 2. The Art and Architecture of the Zuiderdam.

Day 2. The Inside Passage

The next morning we awoke in the heart of Alaska’s Inside Passage. We passed through the depths of many fjords where lush mountain rain forests cover steep canyon walls and deep waterways. Here in Alaska they stretch from the Misty Fjords near Ketchikan up to Glacier Bay. The fjords were cut thousands of years ago by glacier movement through the region from the last Ice Age.

Along the way, sights include cascading waterfalls, some still frozen over from the previous winter …

Sights from the Inside Passage.

… and icebergs that had broken away from retreating glaciers upstream.

The only signs of human activity here are the small boats that pass and a few lighthouses …

Lighthouses and retreats spotted along the way.

… and retreats along the way, where most are accessible only by boat or seaplane.

Day 3. Tracy Arm Inlet and Juneau

The next morning we arrived at Tracy Arm Inlet, which leads into a narrow fjord with both rain forests and glacier fields. Here the climate can be damp and foggy, and the temperature can drop in the 30s to 50s degrees Fahrenheit, even in the middle of summer. Tracy Arm and the surrounding area are protected by the Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the United States. From Tracy Arm we navigated the fjords to Juneau, our port for the rest of the day.

Tracy Arm Fjord.

Juneau is the Capital of Alaska, but small and isolated. There are about 32,000 residents, primarily fishermen and business operators, supporting the influx of a million tourist a year. Cruise ships contribute about 6,000 tourist per day to the city during the summer months. There are no roads connecting Juneau to the rest of the state, so access is by air and sea with ferries connecting to highways up and down the Inside Passage.

Juneau Alaska.

There are many excursions available from Juneau, and our choice was to travel by helicopter to Mendenhall Glacier.

Our flight to the Mendenhall Glacier.

What an adventure and a beautiful sight. Our helicopter tour took us out of Juneau and over the mountains covered in rainforests to the mouth of the Mendenhall Glacier, then up and over to the surface of the vast glacier top covered in fresh snow.

Mendenhall Glacier.

The glacier is located in Mendenhall Valley, and is part of the Tongass National Forest. It is about 13.6 miles long, and has retreated about 2 miles since the early 1900s. The Mendenhall Glacier is fed from the Juneau Icefield above the glacier that is about 4,500 feet thick.

Our flight took us to Mendenhall Valley where we landed on top of the glacier. Here there was a dog sledding camp set up for excursions out to the perimeter of the glacier valley.

Dog sledding camp on Mendenhall Glacier.
Our dog sledding team.

We learned all about the dogs, and the mushers that take care of them, and enjoyed a dog sled tour out to the perimeter and back with several stops for photographs and discussion of the sites and the sled team.

Mendenhall Valley.

On return, we met the pups, the next generation of dog teams, which all seemed so excited.

The next generation of dog sled teams.
Departing Juneau.

Back in Juneau we boarded the Zuiderdam and set sail for an overnight journey to Skagway.

Day 4. Skagway

Skagway began as a gold rush town in the late 1800s, but today is a center for explorers of the surrounding beauty, preserved by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Here we decided to take the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, through the mountains, and up to the United States and Canadian border at the summit of the White Pass.

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.

Along the route are tunnels and trestle bridges providing a continuous climb from sea level at Skagway to nearly 3000 feet altitude at White Pass. The pass and railway provided the easiest route from the Yukon to the seaport at Skagway during the gold rush and the years that followed.

Trestle bridges and tunnels.

The railway was built to accommodate prospectors traveling from Skagway to the Yukon River in Canada, but once completed in 1900, that traffic had slowed and so the railway turned to freight, hauling ore from more mechanized mining operations in the Yukon. During World War II it provided military transport as there was fear that the Japanese might invade and take control of the resources in Alaska and neighboring Canada. After the war it returned to mining and passenger operations. With the completion of more road networks from the region, the mining operations used roadways, and the White Pass railroad turned to support tourist traffic.

White Pass at the United States and Canadian border.
The view back toward Skagway.

That evening our departure onboard the Zuiderdam gave us the most spectacular sunset of the trip.

Departing Skagway and headed for Glacier Bay.

What a beautiful and peaceful sight, leaving Skagway for an overnight journey to Glacier Bay.

Day 5. Glacier Bay

Entering Glacier Bay we found amazing sights and a beautiful day. The sun was out, but here, it was cold and windy. The wind coming in from the northwest across those glaciers really dropped the temperatures from what we had been experiencing through most of the cruise. Our guides informed us that we had been quite fortunate with the weather for this cruise. It had been sunny every day with few clouds or fog banks to navigate through. Rain is more the norm here and throughout the Inside Passage journey. After all, most of the mountains are covered in rainforests.

Glacier Bay, cold and windy.

Glacier Bay, along with the surrounding mountains is part of the Glacier Bay National Park, set up to protect the glaciers, land, seas, marine life, and wildlife in and around the bays.

Our closest approach to any glacier was the Margerie Glacier, which extends 21 miles up to Mount Root, and has a rugged cliff face standing 250 feet high at the edge of the bay, with another 100 feet below. Ice collapsing from the face was constant during our tour.

Margerie Glacier.

Extensive melting and collapse of the ice known as ice calving, was ongoing. The blue ice indicates ice that has been under extensive compression, indicating that there were many hundreds of feet of ice above at one time. Earliest reports from explorers in the mid 1700s state that the entire bay was once an ice sheet, and that over the past centuries ice has retreated, and the glaciers calving, as we see it today.

Ice calving from the face of Margerie Glacier.

That evening we left again for open sea and back into the fjords for Ketchikan, spotting whales and seals along the way.

Seals and Whales.

Day 6. Ketchikan

Ketchikan is located at the southeastern end of the Alaskan peninsula and is noted as being Alaska’s oldest city, established in 1885. The area was being explored for possible fishing camps, and was already occupied by Tlingit natives as a summer fishing camp. There are tours out of Ketchikan, but we wanted a free day to just wander. Here we took in a lumberjack show during lunch, and were entertained by a variety of competitions and stunts.

The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.

Ketchikan is noted as having the largest collection of standing totem poles for any city in the world. There are at least four totem pole parks, of which we visited one of these, the Saxman, noted as having many reproductions of original totem pole designs.

The Huna Tlingit people are the area natives that made totem poles to display people, animals and places of significance to them. There is evidence that their culture existed along the Inside Passage and around Glacier Bay for at least 3,000 years, and perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago. Every totem pole has a history and purpose. Here the pole in the foreground is called Kakaso, meaning people come from far away to seek her advice, by Kwaka’wakw carver, Ellen Neel and her uncle Mungo Martin.

Kakaso by Ellen Neel and Mungo Martin, Sky Chief by Tim Paul and Art Thompson.

The totem pole in the background above is called Sky Chief, by Hesquiat artist Tim Paul and Ditidaht artist Art Thompson.

At the Saxman Totem Park we had a chance to check out the totem poles up close to study their beauty and admire their history. The totem pole is a form of art that is native to western Canada and the northwestern United States. They are huge, carved from western red cedar, with many here being about 5 feet in diameter and 40 feet tall.

Totem Poles at Saxman Totem Park.

Oh, and if you will notice on page 25 of your US passport there is a totem pole in the background for Chief Kyan, who was chief of the Tlingit people in the late 1800s.

As we prepared to board we noticed work in progress on the ship. Maintenance is ongoing at every port. Here in Ketchikan, a maintenance crew is painting the side of the ship.

An eagle eye on the Zuiderdam maintenance work.

And before leaving port, an eagle dropped by to inspect the maintenance work too.

A view across Ketchikan harbor.

Leaving Ketchikan that evening, we ventured back out through the fjords and then into open waters where we spent the next day out at sea. Our return trip to Vancouver was nearing, which gave us more time to spend exploring the artwork onboard. You can read more about the amenities in Part 2. The Art and Architecture of the Zuiderdam.

Travel Notes

There were a lot of tour options at Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, and I am sure they are all great adventures. In retrospect, I cannot think of anything we would have changed for our adventure. These trips are just always too short!

Pack a reusable water bottle and coffee mug that you can use onboard and on your excursions, because the ship does not use any disposable paper or plastic packaging for food or drinks. If you forget something, there are shops on board that can provide pretty much anything you might need.

The Inside Passage with approximate daylight routes in red, and overnight routes in blue. Routes may vary depending on sea and weather conditions.

Notes and References

Story by David Smitherman, and photographs by David Smitherman and Ana Mari Cadilla. Data collected from onsite inscriptions and brochures, Wikipedia, and Google Maps. Tours were made in July 2009, and yes, the exact same tour is still available at this writing in 2024. Cool!

Holland America at: www.hollandamerica.com/en/us

You can see my travel photography on Instagram at davidsmitherman3 and my wife’s art at arte_anita11.

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David Smitherman

Retired architect and space architect from NASA. Married with a growing family. Currently into travel, historical architecture, photography and genealogy.