Skip to main content
Original Issue


The final leg of the thousand-mile cruise from Seattle to Juneau leads the adventurous yachtsman to great salmon rivers, into wild, beautiful fiords and ultimately to the tidewater glaciers of Alaska

The final 500 miles of the Inside Passage to Alaska takes the yachtsman out of the well-traveled waters around Seattle and Vancouver and on to the spectacular fiords of the north. This northern section is no place for the novice who likes to laze along in the company of half a dozen other cruisers and tie up at night in a snug marina. In these chill waters, the towns are little more than fisheries depots with a gas dock and a grocery store. The boats one meets are mostly commercial salmon trawlers.

If the amenities of modern cruising are lacking, however, there is no shortage of adventure. Along this coast the biggest grizzly bears in North America come down to the beaches to comb the surf for 50-pound salmon—the same fish that you will seek in trolling offshore. Here, too, the killer whale moves into the inlets hunting for seal. A few miles at sea, the 60-foot blue whale rolls and spouts his way to southern waters. On the islands protecting the Inside Passage from the Pacific there are quiet coves where you can catch a bucketful of big succulent crabs. Indenting the mainland are deep gorges, their channels so narrow that the tide sweeps against your bow at 20 knots. In every inlet, on both sides of the passage, discoveries await you and, as Part II of Inside to Alaska shows, the waterways are wide open for the yachtsman who has a taste for the unknown.


The jumping-off place for the last half of the trip is Duncanby Landing, a small fishing village in British Columbia. Here you can tie up for the night at the dock, fill your tank with gas and water and take on a load of groceries. Your next gas stop will be Bella Bella, 60 miles to the north. But before you head for Bella Bella, take a hard right just outside Duncanby for a day of superb salmon fishing at the head of Rivers Inlet.

SIDE TRIP: RIVERS INLET. From mid-July through the end of August Rivers Inlet is jumping with big salmon. Here, as at Phillips Arm in the southern part of the Inside Passage, no fishing license is required. Just check in with the Fisheries Commission, which has a man stationed at the cannery wharf a mile below the river mouth. The best lure for the larger spring salmon is a five-inch spoon, and the best place to troll is usually the head of the inlet. When the spring feeds, he feeds quickly and ferociously, but you usually have to wait him out. During our first day at Rivers we hooked two, both of them well over 40 pounds.

While you are trolling you will see dozens of seals hunting the salmon. And sometimes the seals themselves are hunted by killer whales, vicious 30-foot carnivores with black dorsal fins that jut ominously from the water as they surge across the inlet looking for their prey. When killer whales appear, the fishing is over. The spring salmon hides from them and won't feed. Only the sockeye will continue jumping and somersaulting—and the sockeye does not take a lure.

If the salmon go into hiding, you might try a little bear watching. Rivers Inlet is at the center of the finest grizzly country in North America. At any time of day, grizzly sows and their cubs may come down to the shores of the inlet to feed on the salmon. The big male bears usually stay hidden in the woods, taking their fish from the creeks. If you are an experienced woodsman with a good rifle, a hunting permit ($25) and can hire a licensed guide (nearest one is John Stanton of Knight Inlet; he charges the standard $25 a day and is best reached by mail in advance of your cruise), you have an off chance of getting a world-record grizzly.

When you have loaded your boat with salmon (or bear) or just pleasant memories, head back out to Duncanby Landing, then turn northwest for a stop at Calvert Island.

SIDE TRIP: CALVERT ISLAND. Calvert is cut by a long narrow harbor that reaches west to within a mile of the island's Pacific shore. Anchor here, let down a crab net and walk the path over to the Pacific. There you will find one of the rare sand coves of the Northwest coast, a semicircular beach shaded by tall cedars and bordered by a strip of clean white sand. If the sun is out, lie down on the sand and warm yourself. Then hop into the surf for a quick—and very cool—swim. After lunch, try a slow walk back through the cedar forest. Along the way you can pick fat ripe huckleberries from eye-high bushes which line the path. Once back at the boat, pick up your crab net. It probably will be filled with a tangle of crabs. Boil the crabs, eat them hot from the pot and wash them down with sugared huckleberries and milk.

Then shove off for Bella Bella, 40 miles away. (Namu is slightly nearer, but the smell from the fish-rendering plant is overpowering). This is the part of the trip where you will make your best time. Your course winds through narrow, sheltered channels where the water rarely is broken by more than small ripples. At Bella Bella you can tie up for the night at the huge fisheries wharf. The grocery store is right on the dock. Order your supplies while you take on gas, then cook dinner and sleep aboard.


Butedale, another fisheries depot, is 85 miles up the coast from Bella Bella. There are no gas docks in between, so outboarders should fill their spare fuel tanks. Ten miles of this run is through the open water of Milbanke Sound, where bad weather may force you to hole up in one of the small harbors on either side of the main channel.

If you make good time across Milbanke Sound, plan to spend part of the afternoon in Griffin Pass, a narrow waterway nearly blocked off at one point by an island. When the tide starts to run out at Griffin Pass, the water behind the island roars down the narrow throat at a speed of almost 20 knots. This is a challenge for any outboard cruiser. Gun your engines and try to run up this saltwater cataract, but watch your steering. You have to correct quickly whenever the boiling water starts to turn your bow, or you may be shoved against the rocky shore. Once above the "overfall," you will find yourself in a lovely salt pond where other boats have seldom gone. All around you, herring duck and white duck will be skittering through the kelp while seals cut silver slits in the quiet surface. The tide divides at the middle of the pond, and there is another overfall at the far side of the pond where you get a free ride back down to the main channel.

As you continue on to Butedale, you are likely to come across an unpleasant phenomenon called "red tide," which occurs from time to time along this part of the Inside Passage. Keep a sharp eye out for it, an orange-red ribbon of millions of poisonous microorganisms twisting down the channel like a trail of dye. Do not use the water in the vicinity for dishwashing, and never eat clams or crabs anywhere near red tide.


At Butedale, as at Bella Bella, plan to gas up, eat on board and get to bed early. In the morning you start your 115-mile run up to Prince Rupert, last stop in Canada, and you should get under way early enough so you can spare an hour to watch the salmon circus at Lowe Inlet.

SIDE TRIP: LOWE INLET. At the head of Lowe Inlet, just three miles from the turnoff out of Inside Passage, the Lowe River comes rushing down its rock bed and plunges into a saltwater pool. A few days each month the tidewater rises high enough to let the salmon swim up into the river. The rest of the time they circle in the big pool, making futile sorties against the falls. By the thousands, they hurl their silver and blue-black bodies into the white waters, landing halfway up, their tails spattering water like buckshot as they try to swim over rocks an inch below the surface. Then, inevitably, they drop back and are washed down into the pool, where they gather for yet another leap.

When you leave Lowe Inlet, your destination is the Prince Rupert Yacht Club, managed by Stein Diderichson, who is notably hospitable to all visiting yachtsmen. He will take care of fueling and berthing your boat while you hop a cab into town. Prince Rupert is a quiet town, exactly what you need after your long, hard runs of the past few days. Rent a room at the Savoy Hotel, have a good, hot bath and go out for a shore-cooked meal at the Broadway Restaurant. If you want to bust loose, wait until you get to Ketchikan.


From Prince Rupert it should take a fast boat about three and a half hours to get to Ketchikan. You may have a rough passage across Dixon Entrance, a long stretch of open water only slightly less renowned for its weather than Queen Charlotte Sound. If the weather gets too bad, duck into the protected bay at Dundas Island on the southern edge of Dixon Entrance. When you get to Ketchikan you will be back in the United States once more. There are welcome touches of the U.S.A., like 24-hour laundry and cleaning service, breezy waitresses and friendly Irish policemen. However, nothing else seems much like home. Ketchikan is a fishing town sitting half out over the water on huge wharves that stand 30 to 40 feet above the water at low tide. Along these wharves the seiners unload hundred-pound carcasses of gray-white halibut. The town itself, an odd mixture of tumble-down Indian shanties and clean modern houses, is filled with fishermen, lumberjacks and Indians, who crowd the bars on Saturday nights to spend their week's pay in one roaring night on the town. If you want to join in the revelry, these characters will be glad to help you. For a quieter evening, however, check in at the Ingersoll Hotel, then browse through the gift shops on Main Street (Whale teeth, carved walrus ivory). Then take an hour or so to visit Ketchikan's Totem Park and see its collection of outstanding totem poles.


Just north of Ketchikan there may be some wet going if the confused wave patterns are dusted with a chill Alaska rain. When the weather looks like this—and it often does—there is a fine place to hole up at Bell Island, 43 miles through the Behm Canal from Ketchikan.

SIDE TRIP: BELL ISLAND. Bell Island Hot Springs is an old spa, quiet, relaxed and very unpretentious. Nevertheless, it attracts some sophisticated travelers. (Bing Crosby, an enthusiastic Alaska cruising man, is a frequent visitor.) The resort has a new dining and recreation room, and some ancient and Spartan overnight cabins. The focus of the place is the bathhouse where, for a dollar, you can warm your bones and soothe your tired muscles in a tub full of hot sulphur water.

Radio ahead from Ketchikan to make reservations. If you arrive unexpectedly and are the only boat present, you may have to rely on your own stores, augmented by whatever fish you can catch.

Fortunately, the fishing here is excellent. The stream that runs past the cabins into the Behm Canal is full of trout—Dolly Varden, sea-run cutthroat and rainbow. And the canal itself is full of salmon. While you are fishing, you will see an amazing variety of wildlife. On the grass meadow across the stream, bears occasionally come out to nibble strawberries. Otter and mink hop down the boardwalk to the dock. Out on the canal, merganser and herring duck paddle about while, in the stream, the odd little water ouzel—a diving bird no bigger than half your thumb, walks around on the bottom of the stream hunting for grubs.

Plan to spend a day here, fishing and soaking in the hot springs. And before you leave for Petersburg, take time to see magnificent Walker Cove, 34 miles up the Behm Canal.

SIDE TRIP: WALKER COVE. At the entrance to Walker Cove, sheer walls of blue-gray rock rise a thousand feet on either side of the narrow strip of water. From high above, rivulets of snow-melt flash down through patches of green moss. There is a little stream near the head of the fiord where you can anchor, eat lunch and watch the seals snorkeling about, smelling out the salmon. After lunch, cruise slowly back to Bell Island for a quiet afternoon of trout fishing. Then set out the next morning for Petersburg, 130 miles away. The first 64 miles across Clarence Strait can be rough, but with good weather and a fast boat you can get to Petersburg by mid-afternoon.


At Petersburg, plan to spend a day checking and overhauling your boat. The side trips into the Le Conte Glacier, Fords Terror and the Taku River are the most rugged of the entire 1,000 miles of the Inside Passage, and there are places where a normally minor mechanical breakdown could result in the loss of the boat. There are four marine repair yards here where you can get a complete overhaul, provided there are no fishing trawlers already on the ways. In this case, a careful dockside checkup will have to do.

SIDE TRIP: LE CONTE GLACIER. Le Conte Glacier winds down mile-high Simpson Mountain to the edge of Le Conte Inlet where it drops enormous chunks of ice into the sea. As you approach the head of the inlet 12 miles southeast of Petersburg you get your first look at these icebergs, their tops rising as high as 20 feet above the water. From a distance, they look like a herd of huge white sheep jogging their way out the mouth of the inlet. As you get nearer, each of the big bergs takes on a weird and wonderful shape, and underneath the bright white surfaces you can see the soft green and blue light that flashes from the ice. Don't let their beauty tempt you to come too close. The roar that sometimes issues from the ice pack warns you that overhanging chunks of ice occasionally break off—and a small overhang is heavy enough to sink an average cruiser.

Behind these first bergs is a tight, almost impenetrable pack of smaller bergs blocking the channel that leads round a bend to the face of Le Conte. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S guide, Phil Portrey, a veteran of two outboard trips to Alaska, took our cruiser through this pack, shoving the smaller bergs out of the way with the bow. But this kind of maneuver is for expert seamen only. As the boat worked forward, the sharp underwater edges of the ice floes scraped menacingly along the thin plywood sides of the boat. In two hours we creaked and groaned through a mile of ice, the floe closing behind us, leaving not a sign of our entry. Then we rounded the corner of the inlet, and there was Le Conte, a vast river of ice winding down between two peaks and breaking off abruptly at tidewater. We stopped, still a half mile from the glacier, the ice pack too thick to risk going on in. We drifted for a few minutes, scanning the 150-foot ice cliff. Then we started working our way back out to the safety of open water.

From Le Conte, your course runs west until you clear the mouth of the inlet, then north toward Juneau. En route you will be traveling along the migratory lanes of playful, giant whales. The whales often travel in pairs, spouting plumes of water each time they break the surface. When you see one of these mushrooms of spray, motor over quickly and cut the engines. Wait five minutes. Suddenly, with a deafening bwaawoosh! the whale will pump another cloud of spume into the air close by the boat. A moment later, part of the glistening black back will appear, then more of it and more until half the 50- or 60-foot mammal lies awash. If you start toward it, the back will go under, to be replaced by a dorsal fin that rolls slowly up into the air and then disappears. The fin is followed by more back, and finally the great horizontal tail, six to eight feet across, will rise majestically from the water, hang there a minute and slide under. If you happen to catch a mating pair, they will swim slowly ahead of your boat. At one point, we got so close to a whale that I could see the huge tail no more than two feet off the bow. That is as close as anyone should get.

SIDE TRIP: FORDS TERROR. If, after playing tag with a pair of whales, you feel the need of more adventure, take a side trip into Fords Terror. This is another inlet whose tides are squeezed through a narrow throat to form an overfall. The best time to come in is at slack low tide, then buck the overfall from the rising tide on the way out. Do not try to ride with the tide either going in or coming out. With the roaring 15-knot current of the cataract pressing against your stern, you will have no control over the boat. The head of the inlet has great facades of rock striated with traces of red and laced by tiny streams of snow-melt that splash down into the pool of pale-green tidewater.

SIDE TRIP: TAKU HARBOR. Taku Harbor is an overnight stop 38 miles north of Fords Terror. There is no gas or grocery store here. However, there is a dock maintained by Father Hubbard, the famous cleric-geologist, who has seen more of Alaska than any other man. If he is not out taking moving pictures for his lecture tours, Father Hubbard will be sitting on the porch of his bunkhouse, a small man, old, but wiry with jet-black eyebrows. An evening with the old priest is one of the delights of a trip up the Inside Passage. The talk will drift from the great salmon runs of the past, when the fish were packed so close that the rustle of their fins was louder than the sound of a man's voice, to the mysterious ice islands hundreds of feet thick that inexplicably appear in the arctic icecap (elsewhere no more than 15 feet in depth).

SIDE TRIP: TAKU RIVER. In the morning, head up the Taku River to Taku Lodge. Warning: the lower channel in the Taku River is shallow, unmarked and choked with glacial silt. So be prepared to leave your cruiser sitting on a mud bank for the night while you make for the lodge in a dinghy. For the record, the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED expedition arrived by dinghy. At the lodge, you are back in civilization. There are comfortable overnight cabins and a fine dining room. From here you can ride the lodge's river boat ($7.50 a head) through the upper channel for a look at Twin Glaciers. This is a real tourist's glacier—big, spectacular and visible at risk of neither boat nor crew. The launch from the lodge stays nearly a quarter of a mile away from the face, well out of harm's way when the wake of the boat cracks loose a giant iceberg that drops with a roar into the glacial lake.


Juneau, the final destination, is only a two-hour run from Taku River. It is a bustling modern city with several good restaurants (try the spiced beef at Laura Lee's Bar and Bar B Q) and the best hotel north of Victoria: the Baranof. When you arrive, leave your boat at one of the dozens of jetties available, get a room at the Baranof and head for the clothing and gift shops. They have a marvelous assortment of sealskin parkas, mukluks, Eskimo ivory carvings, walrus teeth, Alaskan jade, Northwest Indian totem carving, leather goods worked by Eskimos and gold nuggets. Prices average 25% less than in Seattle, but even so the items are not cheap. A good sealskin parka, for instance, runs well over $150. Buy one. Nothing is better to wear for after-ski or any other occasion that demands something warm, comfortable and sportif.

A few days' shopping and resting in Juneau, an evening or two at the Red Dog and you will have to start thinking about the journey home. Without side trips it can be made in five to seven days of hard running. A much pleasanter alternative is to store your boat for the winter in Juneau ($10 to $15 a month at Crock's Boat Shop) and fly home—over the long, long sweep of mountains, gorges, glaciers and green islands that you will cruise next year on a vacation back down the Inside Passage.



NORTHERN HALF of the Inside Passage runs up the coast from Duncanby Landing in British Columbia to the journey's end at Juneau in the Alaska Panhandle.








THREADING THROUGH ICE floes on way to Le Conte Glacier, Skipper Phil Portrey (left) and Writer Mort Lund search for an opening through the ice-choked channel.