Alaska Cruise up the Inside Passage


The Inside Passage is a network of waterways that allows Alaska cruise ships to travel in comfort between the states of Washington and Alaska, via British Columbia, with almost continuous protection from the often-tumultuous seas of the Pacific Ocean. 

A fjord is a glacially carved valley that is now flooded by the sea. The U-shaped valleys that were carved by glaciers are often quite deep. Many fjords are "blind alleys" that end abruptly where the land emerges from the water or, perhaps, in a tidewater glacier. Tracy and Endicott Arms, which end in the Sawyer and Dawes Glaciers, respectively, are examples. They are beautiful, majestic, with sheer walls towering above, but you have to come out where you came in so they won’t get you from here to there. Other fjords are open to the sea at each end and thus they are corridors for transportation. They might be called passage, or channel, or strait, but they are all fjords that were carved by the glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Ages.

On an Alaska cruise up the Inside Passage from the south, your ship will enter through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between southern Vancouver Island and Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Soon you are in Canadian waters, passing up the Strait of Georgia, then Johnstone, and Queen Charlotte Strait. For 290 miles (460 km), Vancouver Island is to your west (the port side, in nautical speech) and the British Columbia mainland to the east or starboard. You see evidence of the major economic activity of British Columbia – timber harvest – on the slopes of both Vancouver Island and the mainland. Tugs pulling barges loaded with logs and wood chips are often encountered. The route passes through a constriction at Seymour Narrows. Before 1958, it was even more dangerous because Ripple Rock lay only 2.7 m below the water at low tide. In that year, Canadian authorities blew up Ripple Rock to provide safer passage. Even now, many ships wait for slack tide, when tidal currents are least, to pass through the Narrows.

As you leave British Columbia on an Alaska cruise, you are exposed, briefly, to the Pacific Ocean swell at Dixon Entrance. Thankfully, you are soon within the protection of the Alexander Archipelago, the islands of Southeast Alaska. The Inside Passage now becomes a maze of waterways. The widest and most direct route through Southeast Alaska, and hence the main cargo route, goes up Chatham Strait, the longest fjord in the world. It separates the ABC islands of Southeast Alaska: Baranof and Chichagof Islands to the west, Admiralty Island to the East. It then exits into the North Pacific Ocean via Icy Strait, passing the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park on its north side. Smaller vessels seeking a scenic passage through Southeast Alaska may choose to navigate through Wrangell Narrows to Petersburg. This passage is famous for its strong tidal currents. The channel is marked by an abundance of red and green navigation markers, giving it the name "Christmas tree alley." 

Alaska's capital, Juneau, lies off Stephens Passage east of Admiralty Island. There is no road to Juneau; it is reached only by air or water. The communities of Southeast Alaska (most of them small) are connected by the Alaska Marine Highway System, a state-operated ferry system. The southern terminus of the Marine Highway System is Bellingham, Washington.

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