Glaciers & temperate rain forests…Alaska, here we come!

July 26-29, 2014

The Washington Ferry from Port Townsend to Bellingham doesn’t actually drop you off in Bellingham. You arrive in a small port at Keystone on Whidbey Island. From there you drive across Whidbey Island then across the bridge to the mainland and north to Bellingham. It’s only an hour and half drive and the scenery along the island is beautiful.

Once in Bellingham we went to the ferry to get our tickets for the Alaska Marine Highway then walked into the small old town area and had lunch. We were told to be back to our vehicle by 3:30 so they could begin boarding. We arrived by 3:15 and waited, and waited, and waited for the boarding process to begin. We didn’t start boarding until 5:30! Once the boarding began it was a pretty quick process.

During our wait we spent the time talking with our fellow travelers. There was a bit of interest in the XP Camper and I gave out a few brochures that Marc provided to us. One of the men we met was from Cody, Wyoming. He had so many nice things to say about Cody that we added it to our travel itinerary during the Yellowstone to Colorado phase of the trip.

The solar deck was packed with campers.
Both the front deck and solar deck were packed with campers.
A view of the observation area overlooking the front deck.
A view of the observation area overlooking the front deck.

It was rainy and cold for the duration of our 44 hour ferry crossing from Bellingham to Wrangell 36 hours from Bellingham to Ketchikan then another 5 hours to Wrangell.

Our stop in Ketchikan was around 7 in the morning for a little over an hour. We got up to see the town which was a 10 minute cab ride away. We opted to have breakfast across from the ferry terminal instead. I was less than impressed with the food options available on the ferry which reminded me of the institutional meals from my school lunch program years and years ago.

It was soothing to sit in the observation lounge and take in the landscape.
The somber tones made me feel calm and reflective.

Back on the ferry I settled in for another wet day. I had envisioned seeing snow capped mountains and glaciers throughout the Inside Passage. We saw a few mountains with snow still on their peaks but no glaciers so far. The waters were a steely grey and there were fog banks obscuring parts of the islands. The islands were dressed in forest green covered in a fine grey gauze. The skies were varying shades of grey making the scenery a two-toned world of greens and grey.

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Ferry tracks
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At the tip of Campbell Island is the Dryad Point Lighthouse in Bella Bella, British Columbia.

Finally we arrived at Wrangell, Alaska, the third oldest community along the Alaskan Inside Passage with a population of 2,300 (2013) and where we would spend the next couple of days. It was a Sunday so most of the stores were closed. At first glance, the town did not seem to have any amenities for tourists. We went down the main street and found the Wrangell Convention and Visitor Center which looked closed. There was a woman in the office but closing it up. She informed us that they are typically closed on Sundays but with the Bearfest Marathon just finishing as she pointed out the last competitor walking under the balloon arch finish line. She spent a few minutes sharing with us what we should do during our couple of days in Wrangell and said we absolutely need to go to Anan. Her husband is a tour guide at Anan and said that the viewing has been great this year! She sent us back into town to where all of the tour operators are located near the small marina.

Armed with a small library of brochures about Wrangell activities we drove the main street back through the small town past two grocery stores, a handful of hardware and general merchandise stores, one clothing store, VFW hall and couple very tiny  restaurants. Wrangell has the feel of a small town that has no clue that one of its primary economic resources is tourism. We liked the feeling that we were in a real Alaskan town. There was only one tour operator that was open and we inquired about getting on the Anan Bears and Wildlife Observatory tour. This tour was why we chose Wrangell as a stopover along the Inside Passage. At Anan there are viewing platforms overlooking a river where salmon spawn and grizzlies feast. This was going to be one of the highlights of our Alaska trip. Unfortunately, they were completely booked for the following day due to a cruise ship coming to port. They provided us with a couple of other smaller tour operators to call but nobody else was open.

The funny thing about talking to small tour operators is that when you call them you’re likely calling their home. I called two of them and definitely felt that I was interrupting their Sunday evening. We decided to wait until their offices were open the next day to call any others. So far, everyone was booked…months in advance! Now time to explore Wrangell!

Although it was drizzling all day, people were out biking, running and doing yard work as if it were a dry sunny day. I guess a drizzly day is as good as a dry one when you live in a temperate rainforest where it gets almost 80 inches of rainfall a year! Coming from California, Darryl and I weren’t accustomed to all of this rain. Ever since arriving in Washington State there has been some level of precipitation every day. Up until then our trip was five straight months of sunny weather with maybe two or three days with a smattering of rain.

After driving through the small town (which took about five minutes) we drove about an hour out of town to the Nemo Campsites in the mountains. The sites were gorgeous and we were tempted to stay out there but we still needed to get our Anan tour tickets first thing in the morning. We opted to stay at campsites along Spur Road which is just 10 minutes from the tour operators. View from the Nemo campsites.

View from the Nemo campsites.

The next morning we learned a hard lesson about the impact of cruise ship tourism on these small Alaskan towns. Basically, the cruise ships booked every single one of the tour companies months in advance for 100% of their spots. So we weren’t going to Anan. Although bummed with the current situation due to our lack of planning I doubt that it will make us be better planners. We love living in the moment and staying someplace longer if it suits us and moving on if it doesn’t. We’ll just have to deal with the consequences.

There were three tours that all of the companies offered; Anan, the LeConte Glacier and the Stikine River Tour. They are listed in this order on all the signage and brochures and the prices are reflected high to low in this order. Both Anan and Leconte Glacier were fully booked leaving only the third tour as an option for the next day. We were hesitant to spend the $175 each for the third ranked tour but hey, we would be able to see Shakes Glacier and there was a chance we would see some wildlife. If John Muir called the Stikine River Valley as a “Yosemite 100 miles long” then it must be pretty spectacular. We purchased the tickets for the following day and spent the rest of the day visiting the museum and then off to the restored Chief Shakes Tribal House, I picked up a few produce items at the tiny natural foods market and then off to explore the backroads in the Tongass National Forest.

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The tribal home is made of beautifully hand carved red cedar.
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One of Chief Shakes totem poles. Historically totem poles were left to decay in the elements. Due to discouragement by missionaries and the US government’s, new totems were on the decline. Preservation of restoration of existing totems began in the 1930’s to preserve this cultural heritage.
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View of Wrangell from Chief Shakes Island.

Our Stikine River Tour started at 9 am with Alaska Waters Wilderness Adventure Tours. Captain James and First Mate Scott would be our tour guides for the day. When we booked the tour we asked about what we would see and were told that we would see Shakes Glacier. No bears but a glacier! I was pretty excited to see my first glacier! Scott and James had plenty of stories to share with us about the area and its history. The tour along the river was beautiful but doesn’t vary a lot until we arrived at the icebergs that split from Shakes Glacier after calving events earlier in the spring. They blocked access to the glacier so we weren’t going to see the actual glacier. I should have been more specific in my questions about the tour. “Will we see the whole glacier or just the bits and pieces that have broken off?” I must admit that I was thought touching the icebergs was pretty awesome; maybe not $175 / ticket awesome. I couldn’t believe the size of them which were like small islands floating in the river.

The color of these ice bergs was amazing!
The color of these ice bergs was amazing!
Ice bergs come in all shapes and colors.
Ice bergs come in all shapes and colors.

We saw a few float houses on the river. First Mate Scott told us the backstory about these float houses. When the Federal Government created the national forests, parks, wildernesses and preserves throughout Alaska it agreed to leave the rivers as state territory. Private property within the federally managed areas is not allowed however, the private property of long time residents was grandfathered in to be retained by the family. Because the rivers are state owned many Alaska residents own float houses.

Float house on Stikine River.
I would love to spend a week in this float house!

We weren’t lucky enough to see any wildlife during our tour. Although the scenery was beautiful, I don’t think that the tour was worth the cost and I wouldn’t recommend going on this particular tour. Try to get out to the LeConte Glacier if you can’t get to the #1 tour at the AnAn Bear Observatory. Our tour company was excellent and all of the tour companies bill the Stikine River tour as “seeing the Shakes Glacier”. We were so pleased with Alaska Waters that we booked a future visit to Anan on our return the the Inside Passage in a few weeks. They’ll pick us up from the Banana Point pick-up on Petersburg island.

Darryl and I spent our last hours in Wrangell exploring the coast. Our ferry would arrive at 2:30 am to take us to Skagway. Our time in Wrangell was short and extremely wet. We were seriously considering going to Alaska with the FJ and roof top tent. I think we would have been miserable trying to camp in the rain with that set-up. We were so happy to have our XP Camper at this point!

Our time on the inside passage would be drawing to a close soon. Next stop would be Juneau for just a few hours and then onto Skagway on the mainland….next post.

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Lichen covered Sitka Spruce
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I think everyone in Alaska has a boat and a car to get around.
Commercial fishing boat
Commercial fishing boat

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