My wife and I recently had occasion to take our first ever cruise. The boat’s passengers would disembark at small towns along the route. Various tours and activities were available at each stop, or you could venture out to explore on your own. The ship often moved at night, but sometimes cruised during the day, affording an opportunity to sit on deck and watch as the countryside scrolled by. We hit it off with several other couples and made some good friends.
Readers of the blog are probably thinking around now that we cruised along the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska, seeing whales and glaciers and stopping at maritime ports such as Ketchikan and Sitka. But they would be wrong.
We were actually ten time zones away from Alaska, in France. The week-long trip proceeded down the Rhone River valley from the southern section of Burgundy to the heart of Provence. The land excursions were generally to visit ruins from the ancient Roman occupation or examples of the Romanesque and Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages, with side trips to vineyards and wineries that produce some of the finest, most storied wines in the world.
The boat itself was an elongated river craft, its length, beam and height dictated by the dimensions of the navigation locks through which we maneuvered and the many bridges under which we passed. These physical constraints kept the passenger manifest to a manageable number, somewhere around 180 people.
To be honest, I had mixed feelings about this vacation, which was the first cruise we have taken. There clearly are pros and cons to this mode of travel.
The river format seemed to allow for a very substantial degree of autonomy, the constant proximity of land perhaps being more conducive to off-board flexibility than I would expect on an ocean voyage, about which I have no personal knowledge. It was possible, for example, to make one’s own dinner reservations and take a cab to special restaurants in town, as we did in Lyon, or to spend a day meeting up with old friends from the States, which we had the pleasure of doing in Avignon.
However, there was an inescapable dependence on the scheduled itinerary and infrastructure of the cruise, with no real opportunity to delve deeply into any one place or any particular cultural or culinary delight.
On balance, for covering a fairly extensive amount of terrain, and experiencing a variety of what the French refer to as terroir, albeit somewhat superficially, the cruise was a very good approach. And for me, the practical alternative was not to see this region under different, more intimate, conditions -- it was not to see it at all.
Which brings me to Alaska.
There can be no doubt that the popular cruises along the coast of Alaska provide a less immersive experience than hiking, camping, kayaking or sailing on one’s own or in a small group.
But the reality is that a truly in-depth experience with nature, even in Alaska, is accessible only to those who actually live in what the rest of us refer to as wilderness (but which its inhabitants simply call "home") and to a relatively small group of highly capable adventure seekers -- or those, like me, who do not personally have the requisite skill set and rely instead on experienced friends or professional guides for heavily supported excursions into Alaska's wilderness.
In contrast to this rather small group, the big commercial tours expose lots of people, numbering literally in the millions, to the natural wonders of Alaska, to its marine animals and glaciers, its temperate forests and salmon streams, and often to its inland wonders through optional land extensions up to Denali National Park.
Like my river trip in France, the Alaska cruise experience barely scratches the surface, but at the same time makes it possible to have at least that level of engagement where the alternative for most of the participants is not a deeper experience, but none at all.
The Inside Passage cruises open up Alaska to vast numbers of tourists, year after year. They choose to be there because there is something about glaciers, mountains, forests and marine and land animals that attracts them. It is the same instinct that motivates conservationists. These passengers are likely to be a receptive, and somewhat captive, audience for a respectful conversation about the challenges to Alaska's natural environment and its inhabitants.
I know that some leading naturalists accompany cruise ships as on-board interpreters. However, in general I think this is an underserved market for conservation. And therein lies an opportunity. Environmental advocates would do well to communicate more effectively with cruisers and bring them into the fold, sending them home with a message as well as a memory.