Cruising Southeast Alaska’s Islands

Southeast Alaska’s Islands

Southeast Alaska's IslandsSoutheast, Alaska’s panhandle, stretches approximately 500 miles from Icy Bay, northwest of Yakutat, to Dixon Entrance. It is a narrow strip of coastline and offshore islands next to the province of British Columbia. In many places, the international border runs along the crest of the Boundary Ranges of the Coast Mountains. The majority of Southeast Alaska’s area is part of the Tongass National Forest, the United States’ largest national forest. Massive ice fields, glacier-scoured peaks and steep valleys, more than a thousand named islands, and numerous unnamed islets and reefs characterize the area where few flat expanses break the steepness.

This was an important travel corridor for Tlingit and Haida Native peoples, as well as gold-rush era steamships. In modern times it is an important route for Alaska Marine Highway ferries as well as cruise ships. The region south of Glacier Bay consists of thousands of islands of various sizes which are collectively known as the Alexander Archipelago. These islands protect the more inland coastal waters, called the Inside Passage, from large waves, making them relatively easy to navigate.

The steep, rocky terrain and the many islands and fjords make Southeast Alaska very difficult to navigate. Because of the sparse population, there are only local road systems except for the northern mainland town of Haines and Skagway, which are connected to the Alaska Highway. Therefore travel between the islands and between mainland cities is limited to boat and aircraft. The most economical means of travel is the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway (see the Aurora ferry below at left at Hollis, Prince of Wales Island). But others prefer to explore the Inside Passage from the luxury of a cruise ship.

Southeast Alaska has a unique heritage of seafaring people that stretches back in time over 10,000 years to the camps of the first people of the Northwest Coast Tribes. Alaska Natives continue their ‘partnership with nature’ through preservation of their unique traditional lifestyle. A rich oral history, passed from generation to generation, tells of a presence on the continent from ‘time immemorial’. The rain forested islands of the Inside Passage contain thousands of sites and locations portraying a variety of ancient activities of a culture that has long relied on a seafaring lifestyle in addition to the handful of present day shore side Native villages.

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