Into the great wide open

A trip to Alaska includes spectacular glaciers, forests and vistas.

Alaska 370 (photo credit: Irving Spitz)
Alaska 370
(photo credit: Irving Spitz)
Alaska is huge. To gain a perspective of its size, superimpose a map of Alaska on that of the continental US. Alaska stretches from Canada to Mexico and from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. Some of its inhabitants live closer to Japan than to their capital city, Juneau.
Our Alaskan adventure was spent in the Inland Passage, visiting some of the cities and the spectacular Glacier Bay.
The Inside Passage
This unique waterway with over 1,000 islands lies in the southeast of the state. It is a world of its own, with snow-capped mountains, glaciers and fjords. It is encompassed by the Tongass National Rainforest, the largest of its kind in the US, comprising an area of over 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares). This rainforest is two-and-a-half times larger than present-day Israel.
A unique aspect of the Inland Passage is that there are virtually no roads connecting the towns, and access is only available by sea or air. The Inside Passage was the easiest route for those making their way to the Klondike Gold Rush.
Several cruise lines ply the route from Seattle or Vancouver to Alaska and then traverse the Inland Passage, making stops along the way, finally arriving in the ports of Whittier or Seward.
We traveled on the Island Princess, operated by Princess Cruises. The ship can accommodate almost 2,400 passengers and has a crew of 800. It is so large that one had the impression of being in a large resort hotel rather than an ocean liner. There were plenty of activities on board to cater to the different cultural tastes of the passengers.
One can only marvel at the superb efficiency, organization and brilliant marketing. Despite the large number of passengers, both embarking and disembarking were efficiently done and it never felt overcrowded.
This is the southernmost city in the Inland Passage, and was our first port of
A totem poll in Ketchikan (Irving Spitz)
A totem poll in Ketchikan (Irving Spitz)
call. It has a population of 8,050 and its economy is based on tourism and fishing.
The city is known as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” and has the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles, which are representative of the original tribal culture.
Totem poles nearly became extinct in the first half of the 20th century, because an active attempt was made to suppress the native culture. Today, however, there is a renewed interest in local customs, and the totem industry is flourishing. The poles are not religious objects, but feature prominent tribal members and their family lineage, also depicting stories related to tribal history.
Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk, is Ketchikan’s most famous landmark, abounding with restaurants, museums, galleries, boutiques and gift shops. During the gold rush, this was the city’s red-light district and in its heyday, the street boasted over 30 brothels. Dolly was the most well-known madam of the time, and her establishment has been turned into a small museum preserved much as she left it.
Another interesting landmark is Married Men’s Trail, which afforded easy access for prospective customers to Creek Street.
In 1880 gold was discovered by Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, assisted by one of the Tlingit chiefs. The city of Juneau was founded at this site; the gold mines were operational until 1944.
The city began with a few trading posts and saloons.
Today, it is the state capital but is only accessible by plane or boat, and has a population of just over 30,000 people. Tourism has been a real boon to the city and in summer, huge cruise liners bring in thousands of visitors daily.
After docking at the pier, we were met by Kelly Moore from the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, who was our delightful and informative guide for the duration of our sojourn there. Adjacent to the city is the Juneau Icefield, which lies within the Tongass National Rainforest. This expanse of interconnected glaciers covers almost 4,000, and is only slightly smaller than the Negev Desert.
Our first stop was a helicopter ride over the Juneau Icefield. Soaring high above the icefield and rainforest, one has a stunning view of the glaciers, icy mountain peaks, sheer cliffs, deep crevices, waterfalls and lakes. It is only from this perspective that the majesty and vastness of this wonder can be truly appreciated. The Temsco Helicopter Company lands both on the ice as well as on grassy terrain, enabling visitors to step out of the helicopter and appreciate this wonder of nature from close up.
In the afternoon we were taken to the Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau’s most popular attraction. Situated 23 km. from downtown, it is the most accessible glacier in all of Alaska.
The Mendenhall is one of 38 that flow from the Juneau Icefield, extending over 20 km. to Lake Mendenhall. The glacier is 1,000 meters wide and 30 m. thick. At the site, there is a visitor’s center with numerous trails and stunning overlooks. Because of the warm weather, this glacier recedes at a rate of about 30 m. a year.
Our visit continued with a stop at Glacier Gardens Rainforest, a landscaped botanical garden in the heart of Tongass National Park. The characteristic feature of these gardens is the “upside-down” flower towers.
When a tree falls, the trunk is inserted upside down into the ground. The exposed roots are covered with moss and each spring, flowers are planted in these exposed roots; there are about 25 of these trees in the garden.
This exquisite site was recognized in 2012 in a Readers Digest poll as the “Most Interesting Landmark in America,” and is a venue for meetings, conventions and wedding receptions.
There are guided tours through the rainforest. Glacial striations and grooves line the bedrock, indications of a glacier which has now receded, and the summit offers a panoramic view of Juneau and its surroundings.
We also visited the Silverbow Inn and Bakery, the oldest operating bakery in the state. It was refurbished by an expatriate New York family, which settled in Juneau with their young children. Here, we were treated to a genuine New York-style bagel with Alaskan smoked sockeye salmon.
To get a final perspective of Juneau, we ascended by cable car to the 550-m. summit of Mount Robert. From here, there is an incomparable vista of the whole area.
There are also well-marked hiking trails with several totem poles.
In 1896, gold was found in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory. The town Skagway owes its very existence to this gold rush, since it was the gateway and the easiest transportation route to the Canadian goldfields.
Ships brought thousands of miners up the Inland Passage to Skagway and its sister town of Dyea, which were situated at the northernmost point of the Inside Passage.
In 1896, Skagway had a single cabin. Within 3 months of the arrival of the first boat, the population exploded and soon there were 15,000 to 25,000 people in the city. It had well-laid out streets, hotels, offices, saloons, stores and brothels. Fights, prostitutes and liquor were to be had everywhere. The town was described as a “little better than a hell on earth.”
On their arrival, prospective miners had to climb almost 1,000 m. to the summit of the White Pass.
Canadian border authorities insisted that each potential miner had to bring 900 kg. of supplies to guarantee their survival in the harsh winter. The prospectors then continued to Lake Bennett in Canada’s British Columbia, which was 65 km. from Skagway. Here, they built crude boats and rafts to float down the Yukon River to Dawson City, the epicenter boomtown of the Gold Rush, a distance of about 650 km. An estimated 100,000 goldseekers set out – but only about 30,000 made it to Dawson City.
The White Pass and Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad was constructed in 1898, linking Skagway to Whitehorse in the Yukon, a distance of 175 km. Some 35,000 workers toiled on this astounding engineering feat, which was completed in just 26 months. By 1900, when the railroad was finally completed, the gold rush was nearly over and the population explosion ended almost as rapidly as it began. The town’s economy began to collapse, but some enterprising locals had the foresight to develop the town as a tourist center.
Today approximately 900 people live in Skagway, but the population more than doubles during the summer tourist season – when the town services almost 1 million visitors from cruise ships. Our host in Skagway was Carlin “Buckwheat” Donahue, a charismatic, fascinating and gregarious character who directs the Skagway Visitors Center. He was diagnosed with heart disease in 2003 and to prove that he had fully recuperated, he actually walked about 8,530 km. from Miami to the Yukon River and then paddled a canoe for a further 3,700 km.
This enterprise took 327 days, for the added purpose of raising funds for the local Skagway medical clinic.
Buckwheat met us at the pier and showed us around.
The Red Onion Saloon was a notorious bordello at the height of the gold rush. Today, it has been converted into a bar-restaurant with colorful décor and ladies in authentic costumes who serve as tourist guides.
Another one of the town’s distinctive buildings has a façade made of driftwood and houses Skagway’s Visitors Center.
The White Pass narrow gauge railroad is Skagway’s most popular tourist attraction. It traverses steep gradients hugging the cliffs, going through tunnels and across bridges providing stupendous vistas, until it reaches the summit of White Pass.
Buckwheat also drove us to Dyea, a remote inlet which was also a bustling town at the time of the gold rush. Many prospective miners arrived in this small port. However, it proved to be too shallow for larger ships. The death knell for Dyea was the construction of the railroad from Skagway. The town was disbanded and today nothing remains except a few pylons.
Glacier Bay: This was the grand finale of our trip through the Inside Passage. When George Vancouver ventured into the area in 1794, the bay was completely covered in ice. The inlet was created by the receding of the glaciers and melting of the ice. Today, the bay still boasts of several glaciers, the most prominent of which are the Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers.
MARGERIE GLACIER in Glacier Bay. (Irving Spitz)
MARGERIE GLACIER in Glacier Bay. (Irving Spitz)
Without question, this is the most dramatic sight in the Inland Passage.
Jews of Alaska
The first Jews came to Alaska with the Russians as fur traders. After the Alaska purchase, Jews strengthened their commercial ties to the country. They were prominent during the gold rush and even financed some of the mining ventures.
The first Jewish prayer services took place in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory in 1898. In 1904, a group of Jews in Fairbanks organized a congregation and a year later, acquired a cemetery that is still the only Jewish burial ground in Alaska. Some 750 Jews currently live in Fairbanks, the second-largest city in the state. The Reform congregation in Fairbanks has been described as the world’s northernmost synagogue. Jews have been in Juneau since its very establishment and today, approximately 100 Jews reside there. The Reform Congregation, Succat Shalom, was built in 2004. The small Jewish community in Ketchikan meets weekly for Shabbat services at a private home.
The total Jewish population in Alaska today is slightly over 6,000 and the majority live in Anchorage, the largest city in the state. There are two synagogues in Anchorage, the Reform Beth Sholom and the Orthodox Lubavitch Jewish Center, which was established in 1991 and is the only Orthodox congregation in the State.
In July 2013, the Lubavitch Jewish Center opened the Alaska Jewish Museum and Cultural Center, which aims to highlight Jewish cultural artifacts and document the contribution of the Jews to the development of the state. The museum’s first exhibit was titled “On the Wings of Eagles,” and we were privileged to attend the official opening. It is well-known that from 1948 to 1950, more than 47,000 Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet. What is not so wellknown is that much of this endeavor was carried out by pilots and planes of Alaska Airlines.
In the early 1940s, secretary of the interior Harold Ickes and members of Congress considered a proposal to make Alaska a settlement for Jewish refugees from Europe seeking asylum from the Nazis. With Ickes’s support, interior undersecretary Harold Slattery wrote a formal proposal known as the Slattery Report. This bill met strong opposition from non-Jews as well as Jews – notably Ernest Gruening, the first governor of Alaska, who was of Jewish origin.
Skagway, together with two other Alaskan cities, endorsed the Slattery Report. Unfortunately, president Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to support the plan, and consequently nothing came of it.
The writer was a guest of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Skagway Visitors Center.An emeritus professor of medicine, the author writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel ( He was recently recognized with the Sidney H. Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field.
His photograph album can be viewed at irvspitz, and he may be contacted at