Cruise to Alaska

Visiting the 49th state by sea means you're in for scenic grandeur and grand hotel comfort

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"Come see and feel and hear this ice"

The next day, still sunny, saw the journey’s highlight, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, just northwest of Juneau. "Put on all the clothes you brought with you," said a woman’s voice on loudspeakers throughout the ship, "and come on outside and see and feel and hear this ice." The voice was of a National Park Service naturalist named Dena Matkin. The ice was the sheer and craggy face of the Johns Hopkins Glacier.

Glacier Bay is one of the largest national parks in the United States. With 3.2 million acres it’s a million larger than Yellowstone. But it has only 400,000 visitors a year compared with Yellowstone’s 3.1 million. And 85 percent of the visitors to Glacier Bay come by cruise ship.

For a fee, the U.S. National Park Service brings naturalists to the ships. Ours boarded in the morning and took over the ship’s microphone. The naturalists, who were clearly in love with their stunning park, had a little game to ease the monotony of saying the same things day after day. They bet Matkin, who had the day’s public address chores, that she wouldn’t be able to include in her narration words that aren’t normally part of a naturalist’s talk. Today the words were "acrimonious" and "filibuster." Matkin grimaced. Filibuster?

The ship moved slowly into an area sprinkled with icebergs and edged by the wall of ice. We were at the head of the Johns Hopkins Inlet, where the glacier meets the deep water.

Then something I did not expect happened. Hundreds of passengers emerged onto the forward decks, which faced the ice. Many wore tartan deck blankets wrapped around their shoulders to ward off the chill. They stood there watching the glacier where it had carved away the side of a hill. "There," said Dena Matkin on the loudspeaker, "you can see the acrimonious relationship between ice and rock."

The ship was about a quarter of a mile from the ice front. Crew members worked their way quietly among the passengers, handing out cups of Dutch pea soup. Once in a while the glacier gave off a crack like the shot of a rifle. Less often a small piece of ice calved off its face and kicked up a small wave. Streaks of sunlight touched distant ridges. Two bald eagles landed on a chunk of ice near the bow of the ship and appeared to be sharing a fish. But other than that almost nothing moved. Yet the people watched, rapt. For 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour.

I wandered among the passengers. Randal and Jan Hundley were there on one of the higher decks, just watching. So, it seemed, was almost everyone else. When a small piece of ice bumped against the hull and I heard its faint clang, I realized that everyone was being intentionally quiet. No voices were raised. People murmured to each other. It was as if the people of the Volendam had suddenly become aware of the world that exists apart from them, and they were in awe. As we left Glacier Bay, the loudspeakers came on again, and Dena Matkin won her bet. "I can’t filibuster you anymore," she said.

That night a group of Tlingit dancers came on board from a nearby village and gave a demonstration of their cultural traditions. It was rough around the edges, but as authentic as the ice. The huge crowd in the theater loved it. But then we unloaded the naturalists and the dancers and turned for home. We would stop once more, at Ketchikan, where the weather was still so good that the bright little town looked Mediterranean.

Even Snow Passage turned out to be an anticlimax. The fog lifted just as we swept past the rocks at 14 knots, and the captain said, "That is the magic of the power of a captain, to make the fog lift." The fog closed back down.


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