Monday, August 10, 2015

Canada's Inside Passage

Without fail the last day at sea produced the best weather, clearest skies, and balmiest temperatures we experienced in the last week. Conditions were so perfect that the ship’s crew put on an afternoon salmon bake on Deck 11 that, assuming you still had room, included paella.  A week earlier we departed Seward under cloudy mist-filled skies with temperatures in the low 50s.  It was like a warm June day in North Dakota but not the type of day we had come to expect from cruising.  On this final day as we plowed across Queen Charlotte Sound, wispy cirrus clouds hung like banners in the sky and with the temperature over 80 degrees I was dressed in shorts, sandals, and a Jimmy Buffett t-shirt.  It was more like being in the Caribbean than north of the 55th parallel.

A salmon bake on Deck 11 as we negotiated the Inside Passage was a fitting end to a fantastic cruise

As the mountains of Vancouver Island came into view off the starboard rail it felt more like I was looking at Jamaica with its palm-fringed beaches rising up out of the ocean rather than Sitka spruce forests where only the heartiest Canadians would consider a swim in the ocean.

Crushingly beautiful is the only way to describe the Inside Passage.  Unattributed image downloaded from the Internet

In his classic book Travels in Alaska, naturalist John Muir recounted his adventures traveling north from Seattle through these same waters in 1878 and 1879.  Muir’s explorations were done by steamship and canoe, not from the luxury of a cruise ship.  His passage over Queen Charlotte Sound was described in almost nightmarish terms because of the brutal winds and hellacious seas they encountered.  By contrast my crossing was nearly flawless from a 900 foot long ship that rarely swayed in the ocean’s currents.  There was no wind and the waves were mere ripples.  It was the sort of day Muir could only fantasize about in his dreams.

Anne Vipond’s excellently written and highly informative travel guide Alaska by Cruise Ship describes British Columbia’s Inside Passage by saying “There are many scenic waterways in the world but there is only one Inside Passage. Stretching from Puget Sound in Washington State to Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska, this vast and intricate coastline of winding channels, forested islands, and turquoise fjords is unsurpassed in scenic beauty.”  Vipond’s description was one of the most accurate I have read to describe an area and its impact on visitors.

The open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound almost defy description

Seabirds dotted the ocean’s surface and armada after armada of gulls patrolled floating mats of kelp.  Humpback Whales each on their southward migration to Hawaii provided constant entertainment. Groups of Pacific White-sided Dolphins broke the surface and occasionally surfed in the wake of the ship.  In one particularly narrow strait we encountered a pod of Killer Whales actively snacking on salmon that had not yet reached the relative safety of the Fraser River.

Humpback Whales are a common sight in the Inside Passage

Other than my presence on a gigantic ship the only suggestion of humans along many miles of the Passage was the contrails of Alaska Airlines jets at 35,000 feet streaking back and forth from Anchorage.  The near-wilderness experience we encountered in the Inside Passage was akin to that we enjoyed in Denali National Park.

Several nights earlier at a party Norwegian Cruise Line hosted for its most loyal customers, we overheard a man in a buzz cut haircut and clothed in a coat and tie tell the ship’s Cruise Director he had been cruising for 30 years and been on more than 100 cruises in that time.  Although he still enjoyed cruising, the one thing he missed was “When cruising was more formal and you dressed up for everything onboard the ship.”  I threw away my coat, tie, and long pants the day I retired and have not worn them since (or do I own any of them now). To me cruising is about relaxing and not having a care in the world and the last thing I want to think about or participate in is dressing up like you’re at the office to stroll around the deck of a ship.

To my fellow travelers the serenity of a mid-day crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound and the Inside Passage meant little or nothing at all.  However for me the scene I enjoyed as I wrote this chapter from the balcony of Stateroom 9241was exactly what I have sought from cruising and I didn’t need to be in a coat and tie to enjoy it.

We all have our own concept of wilderness. Mine is best enjoyed from the deck of a ship.  Unattributed image downloaded from the Internet

My journey began on the Carnival Victory where I hoped to discover why people cruise and what they gain from the experience.  What I have learned over time is that we each cruise for any of a thousand different reasons.  Concomitantly we each receive from cruising exactly what we want from it.  Some people backpack their way through Denali National Park to lose themselves in the wilderness.  Others go on safari in South Africa to gawk at elephants and lions. Still others find peace and serenity at a beach resort in Barbados.  For me the enormity of the ocean and the excitement I experience when I see a distant land mass rising up from the ocean’s surface are what I came to find.

Now I can’t wait for my next cruise.

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