What could an Alaska local ever discover on an Alaskan cruise? Just the essence of the place he thought he knew.
“But wait,” everybody asks me at dinner the first night, after the Crystal Symphony steams out of San Francisco, ocean rushing past the broad windows. “You grew up in Alaska? So what are you doing on this cruise?”
What can I do but tell them about that late-1970s day when The Love Boat changed the world by bringing cameras, crew, and really unfortunate disco haircuts to my hometown, Sitka, to film its “Alaska Wedding Cruise” episode?
That day, the ship anchored off the sound’s barrier islands like the corpse of Moby Dick. Actors stood under the shadows of bald eagles and checked the bushes anxiously for grizzlies while the film rolled.
Back then, nobody bothered to count how many cruise ship passengers sailed Southeast Alaska. The earliest figure I can find is for 1983, when Juneau got about 90,000 passengers and Skagway, 48,000. Sitka would have been closer to the low end. Enough visitors so we felt overrun, not so many that we couldn’t escape them; not so many that, in the evenings, when my friends and I took our dogs to the forest for walks, there were any sounds but happy barks on the trail and the kwok of ravens high in the spruce trees.
Not so many that we couldn’t have Alaska to ourselves whenever we wanted.
But then that cheesy TV series showed the state like a fast-forward nature documentary, all fur, fangs, fins, and horizons bending under the weight of ice. Showed what everybody already in Alaska knew about Alaska, why we lived there to begin with.
Now, in 2011, I’m just one of the 875,947 passengers cruising Southeast Alaska during the summer.
Because, in four decades of living and traveling in Alaska, I’ve written 13 guidebooks to the state, hundreds of magazine articles, and the smartphone app that at least one of my shipboard dining companions is poking at. I’ve woken to the hissing of rivers, to bears whacking my cabin walls, to the gunshot clap of glaciers melting, to the 3 a.m. howl of lonely wolves, and even to my little sister screaming, “Mosquitoes are biting my plumber’s crack!”
But never have I woken to the view most people get of Alaska: looking out from a cruise ship window.
What do they see that I’ve never seen? And what can I find out about the place I call home by trying to see it with them?
The ship follows the point of the compass needle, and I watch the mountains steepen, peaks donning rain forest clouds like surrealist bowlers. Water drips into the old-growth forest, into the bays and inlets, ending at last in a stilled sea. Seals bob like black basketballs wearing goggles. The mountains drop straight into the water, channels narrowing as if guarding the gates of a different world.
I know exactly when we sail into Alaska, because my breathing changes, as if I’ve been underwater since the last time I was up here. Only across that border do I break through the surface and fill my lungs again with this place that smells like true love, like ocean and fish and cedar and salt and boat oil and rain and the wet-dog scent of bears.
When we touch land in our first Alaskan port, Juneau—the nation’s only state capital with a glacier in the suburbs, and the only place I’ve ever considered staying forever—it feels like a kiss I’ve awaited for too long.
The Symphony parallel parks along the waterfront between two larger ships, ships that hold more people than most Alaskan towns. I walk into the streets surrounded by other passengers, but something must be different about me, because a pretty woman rides her bike past, then slows, stops. She looks back. “Hey. Are you from here?”
“Used to be. I live down south right now, but”—I gesture behind us, where a pair of tiered waterfalls drop a couple thousand feet out of a cloud. I don’t need to explain.
She smiles. “Well, want to come read Sarah Palin’s emails?” God, I love Alaska.
The Symphony takes all night to sail from Juneau to Skagway, a slow-motion lullaby of spent fuel.
On the Love Boat episode, of course, nobody ever really went ashore; the ship held them in, protective as a space capsule. Some of my fellow passengers, too, have no desire to set foot on land.
“The boat experience is all we need,” says Elaine Der, who is on her fourth cruise to Alaska. “The millions of miles of water, how quiet and still it is.” So still that birds leave hundred-yard wakes when they take off. So quiet that, when a small pod of orcas pop up off the starboard side, I can hear them breathe, a whoosh like my own surprise.
Out on the decks, people don’t talk about where they’re from, they talk about where they’ve been on this particular boat; I meet couples who’ve sailed the Symphony 15, 20 times, and even they trade Bigfoot rumors, sightings of a woman who’s taken the ship on more than a hundred voyages.
I have to admit, I did not want to like something this easy this much. Before realizing I had to try cruising, I never would have thought of turning my back on my years in tents and my hiking boots that I have worn smooth on Alaska trails.
But as long as the ship is moving, the world makes no demands except that I breathe in Alaska. I have a Jacuzzi and better furniture than I have at my house. In case I get hungry, the galley stocks eight pounds of food per person per day, and, like rabbits from a top hat, meals are brought with alarming frequency by a man in a tuxedo.
I like bossing around people in tuxedos. Although perhaps I should never have discovered this fact about myself.
At the tuxedo’s suggestion, I go to one of the ship’s variety shows, where I listen to a pianist with fingers as flexible as the tentacles of an octopus. But I’m in a dark room when I could be in Alaska, and I shake until I’m back outside, where Southeast Alaska’s dark forest and dark ocean disappear under moon-swallowing night. Islands slide past like battlements, as full of secrets as the back side of a mirror.
My room on deck 10 is roughly the same altitude at which I have flown planes into this gray-blue sky, a shade that never made the crayon box. It’s a sky that, if you stay here long enough, makes a contradictory sense: impossibly low and somehow both huge and claustrophobic.
We reach Skagway, box canyon departure point for the 1898 Klondike gold rush. The town offers maybe the best example of the good and the bad that the influx of so many visitors has brought to Alaska. A few winters ago, when I lived here with the 500 or so other year-rounders, I’d wrap up tight in blankets, stand on the porch, and watch the northern lights tint glaciers the lavender of a prom bouquet. I spent entire days without hearing a single car.
Summer’s a little different, with eight lanes of traffic on Broadway: two of tourists on each sidewalk, two of buses, and two more of locals walking in the gutters.
“The town is really not much different now from the gold rush days,” my friend Buckwheat says when I drop in to visit. “Just back then, everybody was armed with guns. Now they’re armed with credit cards.”
Then, “Wait a minute. You came here how?”
Skagway’s main street features a weird mix of restored Old West false-front buildings jammed with the same generic tanzanite and T-shirt shops “you’ll find in Aruba,” says Symphony passenger Jeff Taylor, who has put more miles on cruise ships in the past decade than I have on my car. He adds, “I have a little bitterness over what they’ve done to the ports of Alaska. Although at least the land is still there and still beautiful.”
Locals, like 30-year resident Buckwheat, will say the jewelry stores and their truckloads of tacky baubles “compromise the town’s historical integrity.” The shops do not at all match up with the boardwalked streets and the stories the guides tell about shootouts, men carrying a ton of food up the Chilkoot Trail to the Klondike, and the 100,000 people who filtered through here with dreams of gold nuggets the size of poodles.
But there is another way to look at it. Jeffrey Pogash, a passenger I spend a lot of time with on deck 11, spotting whales he never sees, says, “Skagway is making its money by portraying history in a very entertaining way.”
And a lot of money it is. Gold-nuggets-the-size-of-poodles money. The cruise industry and its demands bring more than 20,000 jobs and $2 billion a year to the state of Alaska. A lot of year-rounders make their entire income during the summer months, as shopkeepers, guides, and outfitters. The town’s restored gold rush–era railway, the White Pass & Yukon Route, which takes travelers on day trips up into the mountains, is the single most popular attraction in Alaska. Back in the 1980s, when it stopped running for a few years, Skagway’s entire economy nearly disappeared.
Money is not all that the cruises deliver. As local Mike Sica says, “the ships bring the world to a remote place that wouldn’t otherwise see it.” Because of the cruise lines, Skagway has a killer Thai restaurant, and the town’s four-aisle grocery store stocks spices that make for great fried rice.
I stroll through all 22 blocks of town, then past the train yards, along the shallow silver edge of the Skagway River. I pass the house I once rented—where the owner I rented it from couldn’t find the key because, when he’d bought it decades before, that owner couldn’t find the key. A little way beyond the train yards, the Gold Rush Cemetery’s markers, weathered by a century, stand as testament to a reality that fell a little short of desire.
Which is kind of what happened to me when I tried living here, the last time I set up house in Alaska. I came planning to stay forever, and I spent each day stunned by the beauty of the town, by the seals playing off the end of the airport runway, by the music of the train whistle echoing across the valley. Yet still my friends down south racked up enormous phone bills with nightly calls to calm me down. Because no matter how much you want to love some places, to curl into them forever, you can’t. I’m not sure exactly what it was: some combination of timing and memory and a need for more fresh fruits than you can get in winter in a small Alaskan town, and a sort of pathetic loneliness even phones couldn’t cure, and the really weird fact that for someone from Sitka, it just doesn’t rain enough in Skagway; the clouds don’t come down low enough.
Isn’t that one of Dante’s deeper hells? To be so close to paradise but never touch it?
Even if I can’t touch it, the town is still like an old girlfriend, the one you half love forever but are glad to get away from.
So, back on the ship, I shake myself loose from the past. I stand on my cabin’s balcony and bow to the town as we leave. That was then, this is now, and now, in the sunset, this might be one of the most gorgeous spots on earth, the day’s last light hitting all three sides of the box canyon, turning each a different shade, like a prism.
For the first mile or so back down the Lynn Canal, the Symphony is paralleled by the Chevalier Rouge, a tugboat that might be the model for every picture of a tugboat ever drawn by a child. In the local Tlingit language, “Skagway” essentially means “only white people are stupid enough to live where the wind blows that hard,” and the tug is there to keep our 800-foot ship from snagging on rocks like Charlie Brown’s kite in a tree.
I’ve been on the Chevalier Rouge a couple times when it’s doing the assist. I know exactly what view the tug has.
And I wonder how many people on this ship left their curtains open, with no idea that sometimes, Alaska looks at them.
After a detour to let us watch a glacier melt in shades of blue the tanzanite stores can’t even pray for, after a day of seeing whales roll like speed bumps in the gray sea, the Symphony at last docks in Sitka. And, returning for the first time in 10 years to the place I consider my hometown, I call my mom, who has missed Sitka every day since she moved south, so she can hear the waves from her favorite beach. Just as I did so many nights in high school, I visit the grave of Princess Maksoutov, wife of Alaska’s last Russian ruler, and yet again don’t see her ghost, which locals will tell you haunts this hillside. Chasing a different kind of ghost, I drive past a certain house, knowing a certain girl won’t be out front, but unable to resist the old habit.
I go into the bookstore, where the same man who sold me books when I was a teenager—and who turned me down every time I asked him for a job—is still working behind the counter.
And then I do something I never did when I lived here but which has become a ritual on every trip back. I go into St. Michael’s Cathedral, a perfect Russian onion-dome church, originally built by Finnish shipwrights, the only people who could use wood well enough to please God.
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart,” the Orthodox liturgy says when it’s recited here each Sunday in English, Slavonic, and Tlingit. I come here now because my heart has been broken every moment I have ever spent away from Alaska, whether I could still call it home or not.
Not knowing what else to do, I go sit on a picnic bench by the sea and watch the waves bow as gracefully as a collarbone behind the shelter of the barrier islands.
I’m not even entirely sure I found the house I used to live in.
“Why do you expect the things you love to always be the same?” my wisest friend says when I call her from the dock. “Why would you even want them to be?”
We head south. Away.
We have one final Alaska stop. At Saxman, a one-square-mile township set within Ketchikan, everybody’s getting ready for a potlatch, a ceremonial feast. The residents, most of whom are from the Tlingit tribe, are dressed in their button blankets and capes, emblems—eagle, thunderbird, raven—stitched in blacks and reds. This is not playing dress-up; this is serious business.
The world of the clan house, the ritual heart of Saxman, is pure cedar, in the walls, in the floor, in the carved screen that divides the house. And outside, cedar in what’s probably the best collection of totem poles in the world. Poles are not religious: They’re stories, they’re histories. Their fractal view of the world, bending it out like a reflection in a raindrop, is also, as Tlingit artist Norman Jackson points out, proof that “Picasso never did anything but imitate us.” Carved with images of orcas, bears, wolves, and frogs, the poles are a perfect representation of the world when you go out to meet it on its own terms.
“It’s culture for life,” says Linda Williams, a member of the Tlingit community, before the potlatch. “The girls go out on the beach and dig for clams and compare stories. And when my son is being a typical teenager, I bring up his culture, and it snaps him back. He can’t disrespect that.”
And culturally, in this world of water, Southeast Alaska has always been about where you could go in your boat. For centuries, the Tlingit and the Haida have paddled canoes as easily as a raven flies. Still today, the maps everybody uses are nautical charts, which don’t bother to show details of the land—it’s impossible to get through the forests anyway, since they’re full of mud and bears and the poisonous thorns hiding under the broad leaves of the devil’s club plant. On a nice summer day, the state government might shut down just so everybody can go play in their boats.
Which makes me think about my own culture, and why I’ve had trouble being in Alaska’s towns. No matter how much I love them—where I grew up, where I failed to make home, where I still think about moving and settling forever—the way I’ve lived the most in Alaska is by moving through it, watching the islands from the water, the sea as still as mercury.
So maybe that stupid TV show was more accurate than I’ve ever wanted to admit. In the towns, I’ve been lost in the weight of my own memory and expectation. At sea, in the places between places, I’m free to simply be in Alaska. This is a lesson I would have reveled in, had it occurred to me while traveling anywhere else on the globe. But not in this place I know best. Or thought I knew.
Maybe it’s time I admit it: I don’t live here anymore. This isn’t my home, no matter how hard I want to cling to it. No matter how depressed I was last year when I finally had to give up my Alaska driver’s license.
But the landscape reassures me, as generous as it has always been. Because whether I’m home or not, it’s business as usual in the woods and the sea. Which maybe explains what’s happening as we cruise past Point Adolphus, where the thousand islands of Southeast Alaska dead-end into the mainland. Ahead of us, just off the point, three whales spout, and two more whales spout over to the left, where low clouds hide Glacier Bay. A couple more whales feed behind us.
It’s just me and one other guy on deck 12 watching. I don’t know where the other 600 passengers are.
“Um, you might want to come over here,” I call to the other guy, just as a humpback breaches, all that whale coming straight up, entirely out of the water like it’s giving the middle flipper to gravity, water rolling off its flanks, shining like lip gloss in the 10 p.m. sunlight.
The other guy puts his camera down. “What’s that sound?” “Splash. Forty tons hitting the water.” A whale-size smile lights his face, and for that moment, he forgets just how cold he really is. He’s freezing, because he’s wearing a suit, and he’s wearing a suit because he’s on a cruise. I’m quite comfortable in fleece, because I’m in Alaska, breathing the scent of home, of bears and salt and cedar, of business as usual in the place between places.
And we’re both exactly where we want to be. A
This appeared in the March/April 2012 issue. Photos by Jake Stangel. Read about 6 cruises through Alaska.