BIRD WATCH: Heading north to Alaska yields several surprises

North to Alaska

THE PASSAGE OF43 years will see momentous changes in most areas. That’s how long it has been since I visited southeast Alaska via the Inside Passage.

My late husband and our two children set out on a month’s adventure to try to see as much of our largest state as we could. The trip began with a cruise on the Alaskan ferry, the Columbia. We disembarked at Skagway and took the train trip all the way to Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

This month, my sister and I decided to retrace the Inside Passage part of that trip. There were some changes, both good ones and not-so-good ones.

In 1974, one cruise ship stopped at the ports of call once a week. Now, these huge floating hotels fill the small harbors of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. Most of the time, we were in company with at least three of them.

When thousands of passengers disembark in these towns, they provide life blood to the small communities. Gift shops and museums are big business during the summer season. Things slow down for the rest of the year.

These three towns look much like they looked when I first visited them. One major change is another business that was introduced to the region. Wildlife adventure trips and other tours have exploded

Choose your favorite outdoor activity and the choices are many. Whale watching with the possibility of seeing some seabirds was our choice, and we weren’t disappointed.

Out of Juneau, the boat trip took us to an area where humpback whales were feeding. They spend the summer in Alaska fattening up for their trip to Hawaii next winter. Three or more of these magnificent animals put on a show that was what we hoped for.

Steller’s sea lions rested on numerous small islands, and bald eagles were hardly ever out of sight. With the exception of glaucous-winged, mew and herring gulls, the only other birds were some pigeon guillemots.

Our second nature tour was out of Skagway, my favorite town in all of southeast Alaska, maybe all of Alaska. There is one main street in town, and the sidewalks are still boardwalks. The train trip still follows the Chilkoot Pass route, but not as far as Whitehorse. It is still vintage 1898, with no luxuries.

We couldn’t do this cruise without trying to see brown bears, a large member of the grizzly bear family. We’ve all seen those photos and movies of them gorging on Alaska’s wild salmon runs.

Our tour began in Haines, a short boat ride from Skagway. There were only eight of us on this tour. We had two terrific guides determined to show us some bears.

Haines is off the beaten path and surrounded by wilderness. It was great. Eagles are everywhere along the river. One pair had young about to fledge, and their wing-strengthening exercises were special for those who don’t see eagles like we do.

Our search began with a walk in the woods. Shortly after we started, Nicholas, our driver, came on the radio and said he had two young bears by the fishing weir. Off we went in a cloud of dust.

There were two “almost-3-year olds” getting their easy dinners. The weirs are used to count fish and make the fishing easy when the salmon come up against it. Most get through. Others are bear food.

The “cubs” were entertaining us when their mother showed up. “Speedy” had kicked them out of the family home this spring, so they grabbed their fish, ran across the road and disappeared. She plopped herself down on what appeared to be a favorite fishing spot. She was still there when it was time for us to leave.

Glacier Bay was another trip highlight. It is so beautiful. You hear and see calving glaciers and more wildlife. Several sea otters paddled past the ship and climbed onto a small floating ice berg.

The best birds were the black-legged kittiwakes. They are everywhere in this bay, and their cries of “kitti-wake!” are nonstop. There were more seabirds as we traveled along the outside of Vancouver Island and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but for this trip, the bears and whales were the stars of the show.

Seeing Alaska’s small towns still looking much as I remember them a long time ago was also a trip highlight. If you are thinking about heading “north to Alaska,” do it.

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Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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