Alaska is often a place on a must-see list, but out of reach due to financial reasons and time constraints for many people. My husband and I were no exception. However, a few years before we were ready to retire, our investments did extremely well. It was an easy decision to turn our Christmas present into a trip to Alaska.
We love to travel in September, mainly because school has started to reduce crowds in our country’s favorite hotspots. A side benefit of fewer people is increased competition between places where tourism is their primary source of income, so prices are more in line with our budget.
The big downside is the colder weather during the fall months and we were going north! However, living in South Dakota at the time, we both had plenty of winter gear. Again, no problem.
Then we were faced with the choice of whether to fly or cruise and scoured travel guides for months, finally choosing a Princess Cruise Inside Passage trip that snaked between islands along the coasts of Alaska and Canada.
The real hook that caught our eye was the photos of blazing fall colors across Canada’s Yukon Territory. On the advice of a friend, we booked the day trip from the ship at the same time we booked the cruise.
Pro tip: Buying tickets for off-ship excursions online from the cruise line is simple and smart. Tours can also be more expensive when booked after boarding the ship.
Pouring rain and fog greeted us in Seattle and we began to wonder if traveling so late in the year had been a mistake. But, within days, two cruise excursions changed everything, and the trip is still one of my all-time favorite vacations.
The inner passage
The Inside Passage stretches hundreds of miles from Puget Sound, Washington, across the coast of British Columbia and into the Gulf of Alaska. There are over 1,000 islands and an endless coastline of beaches, coves and bays.
Our first days at sea were not pleasant. Fog rolled in, followed by rain falling from a gray sky. However, we didn’t want to miss anything about Alaska and spent most of the time in our warm and cozy room staring out the window. Thank goodness we had a balcony and after putting on every winter outfit we sat comfortably outside with binoculars.
Pro tip: Check the cruise itinerary map to book a room on the side of the ship that faces the shore.
Gliding leisurely along the mountains sculpted by Mother Nature while cruising through Tracy Arm Fjord was inspiring. Yes, it was cold, the sky was stone gray and the mountains blurred with a mist above the water – but watching icebergs floating alongside the ship with the Mendenhall Glacier in the distance was very cool, no pun intended.
When rain or fog prevented a view from the front balcony seat, we headed to the center of the cruise which offered a very electric casino, a quiet library and an inspiring shopping mall. The live shows were excellent and of course the food was delicious no matter where and what we ate.
Pro tip: Carry dry bags used by kayakers for technical equipment to enjoy the outdoors even if it rains. Cameras can be hidden under rain ponchos more easily than a rain jacket. I use one that folds into a small bag that fits in my pocket.
Crabbing around Ketchikan
The sun came out when we reached Ketchikan, and the walk around the town proved pleasant and very interesting, especially the Native American museums and the colorful totems. We soon learned of another big bonus of being on the last cruise of the season when we walked into a few stores. Everything is on sale, most items are over 50% off, including silver and gold jewelry and artwork. Christmas was fast approaching.
Later, we boarded a smaller boat to go crabbing. This tour is only available in the fall and early winter, as crabbing season in this part of Alaska has been limited to the sustainable management and preservation of wild crab stocks. Our visit was to catch Dungeness crabs, recommended by Seafood Watch as a good alternative to ‘overfished fish’.
As soon as we boarded they gave us shiny yellow rain suits and my heart sank thinking it was going to rain. Bad. As the boat entered the open sea, dodging waves rolling over the bow was our fun new challenge to stay dry.
The young man leading our group did his best to shout above the boat engine and the roaring sea waves. We rode with him laughing as us crabbing newbies clung to each other. We learned how the crabs are located, the awesome design of the cage, how to throw them into the sea and what to do when they are full of crabs. It was so much fun.
Pro tip: Our group was small and everyone had hands-on experiences. There are bigger boat tours made famous by a reality TV series on the Discovery Channel. The experience may not be as exciting, but might be better for those who are prone to seasickness.
Dig for gold on a train
The excursion from the port of Skagway began with a bus ride on the Klondike Highway to the Canadian border. There we boarded the historic White Pass and Yukon train through the famous Yukon Territory and the White Pass summit.
The train was a commodity of necessity during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896 when George Carmack and two First Nations companions, Skookum Jim (Hanson) and Dawson Charlie, discovered a few flakes of gold in the Klondike region in Canada. These few splinters created a stampede called the Klondike Gold Rush.
A few years earlier, a team of Canadian surveyors had predicted the gold rush and were already planning for the miners’ rush by designing a railroad through the mountains to the mines. The trail is still the main access route into the heart of the Yukon Territory.
The narrow three-foot track gauge allows for tighter radii in curves, allowing the train to follow the landscape and eliminating the need for tunnels. The train sometimes seemed to narrowly miss the mountain in places.
Restored as a heritage railway in 1988, cruise ship tourists became the new ticket buyers. The railroad still uses vintage saloon cars as well as newer 19th century cars with wheelchair lifts. The White Pass & Yukon Railway operates from May to September and offers a variety of routes of different length, duration and price.
We hit gold – the timing of fall foliage was perfect with rows of golden leaves at their peak waving in the breeze. Breathtaking views down steep canyons make for a spectacular ride with scenery only visible via train.
Pro tip: The best views come from a moving train and it’s best to use a camera with faster shutter speed options.
Take a step back in time
The train’s final stop is Carcross, Canada, a unique remote village originally named “Caribou Crossing” in 1899 in reference to where huge herds of caribou have intersected for centuries. The rustic town home to 301 people of the Tagish First Nation was alive as we followed the walking tour map past elegant historic buildings, totem poles, rustic log cabins and wooden bears.
A historic landmark, the original Hotel Caribou built in 1898 sadly burned down in 1909 and was rebuilt shortly thereafter. Mrs. Bessie Gideon ran the hotel until her death in 1933, however, her ghost is said to roam the third floor. Polly, a parrot who has lived in the hotel for 54 years, entertained guests with her rendition of “Springtime in the Rockies.” A tribute to Polly, the Surly Bird Saloon is open on weekends.
One of the most interesting buildings was the Skookum Jim house, built right after the discovery of gold. Covered in cherry red paint mixed with black and blue images of Yukon Territory animals, the exterior mural was designed in the coastal tradition by Tlingit artist Keith Wolfe Smarch. Skookum Jim donated the house to the Wolf Dakl’aweidi Clan of the Tagish First Nation.
The barracks is a log house built in 1921 by a White Pass Railway foreman from trees burned in a fire near Lake Bennett. The logs were placed vertically to form a round base with caulk between the logs. The house then served as a barracks for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with an adjoining prison cell where many selfies are taken. Today, the Barracks presents artists specializing in the Spirit of the North.
Pro tip: While in Skagway, before boarding the bus, visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
If you are going to
The September weather on the ship at sea was very cold, however, the stopovers were warmer and only required a light jacket. The temperature of the Canadian Yukon Territory ranges from 48 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Even when the sun is shining, the temperature immediately cools when a cloud slides overhead. Bring plenty of long-sleeved shirts, closed-toe waterproof walking shoes, a hat, and gloves. Fleece jackets and windbreakers will be your must-haves. Don’t bring a sweatshirt as there will be loads of distinctive varieties to buy at bargain prices.
For more information on traveling to Alaska, check out these articles: