Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.
So much of Alaska revolves around the waterways which surround it.
My second day in Ketchikan involved two separate trips on the water; one on a rather large catamaran and one in a rather tiny kayak.
The harbor, like everything else in Ketchikan, was walking distance from our hotel and early one morning we found ourselves sipping coffee on board the catamaran with about 100 other passengers–most of whom had just disembarked from a cruise ship parked nearby.
Ketchikan, although a port town, is not located on the sea itself but rather along the Tongass Narrows, a ½ mile wide channel of sea water that slips between Gravina Island and Revillagigedo Island (where Ketchikan is located).
Our four-hour, $149 catamaran tour would take us southeast along the narrows past forested mountains and green rolling hills. The first hour was rather uneventful and my friends and I sat downstairs as a friendly naturalist droned on about the history of Alaska or something along those lines. She wasn’t boring; it’s just that the 8 a.m. departure time was a wee bit early to be tuning in at this point.
It wasn’t long, however, before we gravitated upstairs to the observation deck to watch New Eddystone Rock come into view. This massive volcanic spire bursts from the sea with a rugged, prehistoric attitude. It would have been great to get off the boat and wander around the beach as though shipwrecked. But, we had a schedule to keep.
Shortly afterwards, we came to Behm Canal and the Misty Fjords National Monument. Although the entire park is 2.3 million acres large and blessed with outstanding natural beauty in every form, its outstanding fjords are most certainly the park’s crown jewel.
A fjord, by definition, is a valley that has been created by a retreating glacier and then filled in by the ocean. As you can see in the following photos, this often leaves very shear cliffs extending thousands of feet straight upwards.
Spruce, cedar, and hemlock trees cling tightly to the granite walls, while amazingly white waterfalls cascade down their front. As if this wasn’t all perfect enough, dozens of bald eagles could be seen resting in trees and floating peacefully above the tranquil waters.
The Misty Fjords are properly named–at least while we were there. The highest points of the fjords were often enshrouded in fog and mist, lending a surreal, almost Middle Earth feeling to the place. But it was never eerie, like fog so often is. No, this blissful sanctuary of nature, was peaceful and relaxing, and just the perfect medicine to flush the big city out of me.
It would have been mind-blowing to have kayaked through the fjords, slicing silently though the waters while 3,000 feet of granite loomed above. Our kayak trip, however, was slightly more urban in nature.
Southeast Sea Kayaks operates a number of guided tours but ours left from a small set of docks just north of downtown Ketchikan and the cruise ship docks. Our guide, a friendly guy by the name of Mike, saddled us up with gear, gave us a few paddling lessons, and then warned us about crossing the Tongass Narrows.
The Tongass Narrows is the superhighway of Ketchikan. In addition to fishing boats and cruise ships plying its waters, it is also the landing strip for float planes. Crossing it in a kayak is like a bizarre game of Frogger where one has to time the speed of massive cruise ships and tiny prop planes. The current was a bit strong as well and we had to angle our kayaks about 15 degrees left of where we were heading. Things got easier once we pulled up next to Pennock Island, however, and the current subsided. From there we leisurely paddled along the shoreline.
I had been hoping to witness some marine life, but the Tongass Narrows are simply too busy for whales and sea lions to hang around. This was not the iceberg filled adventure that comes to mind when one mentions Alaskan kayaking, but it was a great introduction for those who may have never done this type of thing before and it felt great to get out on the water and slowly circle our way past the island. Next time I return, however, I will certainly opt for Southeast Sea Kayaks’ Orcas Cove or Misty Fjords trip. Both require a boat ride to the destination and then a full day of paddling far from the busy waterways of Tongass Narrows.