Until late last summer, the closest I’d ever ventured above the 58th parallel, and the nearest I’d come to the Last Frontier, was the John Wilson Room on the mezzanine of Multnomah County Central Library. There, seated at a great oak desk, surrounded by medieval manuscripts and other treasures locked away in glass cases, I’d flip through a weathered gray translation of The Voyage of Discovery , Captain George Vancouver’s account of his search for the fabled Northwest Passage. While surveying the coast of the Pacific Northwest at the close of the 18th century, Vancouver, at the helm of the ship HMS Discovery , charted a narrow, thousand-mile-long waterway that was wedged between ice-clad mountain ranges jutting a mile or more into the sky.
The passage ended at a dam of glacial ice 300 feet tall.
Unfortunately, the channel ended not at the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, Vancouver’s intended goal, but at a dam of glacial ice 300 feet tall and five miles wide. He had stumbled upon the Inside Passage, one of the most beautiful stretches of water on the planet.
Since then, many explorers have plied the Inside Passage, chief among them the naturalist John Muir, who paddled the route with an Indian guide in the autumn of 1879 and discovered that the ice dam at its terminus had melted away, revealing a fjord ringed by a dozen tidewater glaciers. Upon seeing Glacier Bay for the first time, Muir wrote, “Our burning hearts were ready for any fate, feeling that whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we have gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever.”
It was after stumbling across Muir’s exaltations of Glacier Bay one afternoon in the library that I vowed to chart my own Alaskan voyage. If I had my druthers, I’d emulate Muir, provision a canoe and spend my summer paddling out to that distant ice-clogged inlet. But in addition to my own druthers, I now must consider those of my wife, Helen (who shares my loathing of group excursions), and the needs of two young children.
Helen and I first investigated plying the passage via the Alaska Marine Highway System, a fleet of 11 state-run ferries that serves 31 ports between Bellingham, Wash., and Skagway, Alaska, including tiny Tlingit fishing villages with names like Angoon and Hoonah. The $2,112 round-trip fare for a family of four on one of these no-frills vessels amounts to half that of an economy berth on the average luxury liner—but then most passengers sleep in tents duct-taped to the sundeck, hardly kid-friendly accommodations.
So we visited a downtown travel agent who specializes in Inside Passage cruises. She steered us to the Norwegian Star , then the newest ship of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Alaskan fleet, which came replete with a literal amusement park of amenities: three swimming pools, one with twin corkscrew waterslides; a video arcade; two playrooms; a kiddie buffet stocked with an endless supply of pepperoni pizza and chocolate frosted cupcakes; plus a resident magician who performs in a 1,000-seat Broadway-style amphitheater. The weeklong excursion, calling on the Alaskan ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan as well as Glacier Bay, would cost $3,911.16 for a family-sized cabin for four (offering a porthole view just above the waterline). Loath as I was to pay such a toll, it seemed the most reasonable way to retrace the voyages of Vancouver and Muir with a kindergartner and a second-grader in tow.
On the morning of our departure, I stood on the terrace of a friend’s apartment in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood just as the Norwegian Star berthed at the terminal a block away, and I couldn’t help but be awestruck by the vessel’s sheer dimensions. The Star stretched 83 feet longer than the Titanic and towered 175 feet above the pier, where a half-dozen semi trucks offloaded provisions to stock the ship’s 13 restaurants. The giddy anticipation of departure only intensified as we ascended the Star ’s gangway and joined 2,200 other cruisers (tended by a crew of 1,100) at the rails, waving at nobody in particular. Then, at the sound of a horn that was felt as much as heard, the great ship nosed north, toward Alaska.