The allure of the alaskan frontier

The Northern Lights dance and twirl all year long, day and night, above Alaska. But sunshine floods the sky from May to September and the aurora borealis is only visible in winter’s darkness. Maybe visitors feel this invisible celestial rain unknowingly and so they throng up the Inside Passage, farther north than is quite comfortable. Put ‘extra-terrestrial magnetism’ onto the list of why Alaska is a must-see destination this year; add to it glaciers, scenic helicopter tours, summer dog sledding, and inspiration from John Muir.



Be one of the lucky few

Just because John Muir, father of the modern environmental movement, our National Parks and peerless explorer, slept on the ground every night and explored rugged Alaska on foot doesn’t mean we have to. Cruise ships offer passengers stunning access to places so wild, no road exists to get there—like Juneau, America’s only state capital reached by boat or plane only, and like the incredible Glacier Bay National Park. The first evening John Muir saw Glacier Bay in 1879, the clouds rolled back to reveal blue ice and sawtooth mountains, “…it seemed inconceivable that nature could have anything finer to show us,” he wrote. The next morning brought more splendor.

“The green waters of the fiord were filled with sun­spangles [sic];” Muir wrote from a canoe near a calving glacier, “the fleet of icebergs set forth on their voyages with the upspringing breeze; and on the innumerable mirrors and prisms of these bergs, and on those of the shattered crystal walls of the glaciers, common white light and rainbow light began to burn, while the mountains shone in their frosty jewelry, and loomed again in the thin azure in serene terrestrial majesty.”

To preserve this beauty for all generations, Glacier Bay National Park allows only 36 boats per day during summer, including only two cruise ships per day, into an area of more than three million acres. This means that if you stand against the rail on the ship’s top level and gaze at the icebergs falling from those “crystal walls,” it will be easy to feel what natives and the first pioneers felt when they discovered this unforgettable destination. The hush of hundreds of awed people onboard will contribute to the thrill. 

 A grizzly crosses a waterfall; Exploring the insides of a glacier.
A grizzly crosses a waterfall; Exploring the insides of a glacier.

Pilot a dog sled

Cruise ships don’t dock in Glacier Bay so if you are inspired to get even closer to one of these mighty iceflows who steal the show in Alaska, book a sled dog ride on top of one. The helicopter ride from Juneau to the flat, smooth upper field where the dogs and the guides spend the summer is worth more than half of the US$500 ticket. Its a ticket to another world. 

First, the helicopter lands where it seems no human being could possibly live, since no plant or animal life is seen to exist here except for 50 excitable huskies and six smiling, sun-baked mushers. The crunch of the snow under the glacier boots they loan you and the absolute stillness of the towering stone peaks never let you forget that you are on a part of the Earth so wild and remote, on top of thousands of feet of creeping ice, even outdoorsmen stand agape in disbelief.

But the antics of the dogs, their puppies and the light-hearted guides never let the fun stop either. These dogs were born to pull. Their happy jumping and barking almost sent them barreling into the whiteness steered by nothing but blind excitement; the guide undid the tether behind our sled before they could rip it out. All were suddenly silent and we were off. 

On the trail, at the base of granite cliffs and fracturing turquoise ice, the last sounds of camp out of earshot, we were motorlessly, gearlessly transported. While the lead dogs and the musher performed their ancient conversation “Gee!” (“go right”) “Haw!” (“go left”), I felt like Russian royalty. Supply your own mental musings, if you want them, because there are none here—only naked geology, the quiet and the pristine.

 John Muir, writer, explorer and conservationist, in 1907.
John Muir, writer, explorer and conservationist, in 1907.

 A family enjoying a half-day of dog sledding atop a glacier, the quintessential Alaskan experience. 
A family enjoying a half-day of dog sledding atop a glacier, the quintessential Alaskan experience. 

If you go

Several companies provide helicopter dog sled tours atop glaciers. Check for an option to book it as a shore excursion during your cruise through Juneau or Skagway. If this popular and award-winning excursion is full, or if you’d like a more personal touch, feel free to contact Coastal Helicopters, Era Helicopters or Temsco Helicopters directly to inquire about their tours. Each operator plans around cruise ship schedules to ensure you won’t find yourself atop a glacier minutes before your ship pulls away. Landing the helicopter on the cruise ship while it sails away is not completely out of the question but is out of reach for most travel budgets. 

The spectrum of ways to access Glacier Bay National Park is wide. Nestle into a floating stateroom at Vancouver’s Canada Place and four days later, you can wake up in that heart-stopping landscape. For those looking to follow in Muir’s adventurous footsteps, consider a flight to Gustavus, the last outpost of civilization at the mouth of the enormous bay, where you can charter any type of vessel from kayak to tour boat. 

Always dress in layers and be prepared to peel them off or zip them up whether you’re aboard a floating city or on foot. Alaska is renowned for many things but ‘predictable’ is never one of them. 

Courtesy of Crystal Cruises / Clockwise from top left: Taken by Professor Francis M. Fritz in 1907 / English Wiki; National Park Service; National Park Service; National Park Service; Alan Wu / English Wiki / Courtesy of Coastal Helicopters