An Alaskan cruise seems ideal for travel with elderly parents but observing the environmental impact of tourism on high-latitude ecosystems forces confrontation with impending loss.
Taking your eighty-something parents on an Alaskan cruise may not be as demanding as climbing Denali or crossing the Yukon by dogsled, yet my sister Kari and I still hesitate when Dad announces he wants to visit Alaska. We’re not sure we have the physical endurance to help him and push Mom in a wheelchair on, off, and around the mega-ship that will become our home for a week, but we don’t want to disappoint Dad, especially after watching him survive lymphoma two years ago. Cruising Alaska’s Inner Passage seems, too, like a special way to celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary, their farthest trip from home since their honeymoon in Canada all those years ago.
Cruises inflict a heavy environmental footprint—from energy use to the waste of food and water to the intrusion of ships into fragile ecosystems. But cruises attract older people through catering to special needs and diets, 24-hour food service, and on-board entertainment and off-ship “excursions,” as they’re called, as if one is leaving civilization behind. Cruises make it easy to get around, with someone to take care of you at all times, even to hand you a plastic rain poncho in case it rains, which in Alaska’s temperate coastal climate is always a possibility. If we’re going to make this trip, we’ll need all the help we can get, with environmental costs unfortunately taking a backseat to our parents’ comfort.
Common United States maps, the kind I learned my states on in elementary school, show the contiguous 48 states with Alaska and Hawai’i in their own corner boxes. Such maps distort scale, making Alaska about the size of my state, Colorado. But a comparison map overlaying Alaska on the 48 states shows something completely different: Alaska would cover Colorado and most of the surrounding states. In fact, at about 665,000 square miles, Alaska is bigger than the next three largest states Texas, California, and Montana combined.
Our cruise of the Inner Passage will take us to only a very small part of Alaska, an area with its own particular climate, geology, and history. I am going as a tourist, but one who is more interested in regional ecology than shipboard entertainment. In fact, this will be my second Alaskan cruise, the first almost 20 years earlier. Since that time, more attention has been paid to the impact of global warming on high-latitude regions. Now I am anxious to see how the glaciers, in particular, have fared.
On the flight from Denver to Seattle, Dad sits by the window to watch the city turn to farmland, then mountains, then back to city again, the first land he’s seen from the air rather than on foot. As a surveyor, he spent years traveling back roads to wild places about to be tamed. He participated in the taming, but he loves the wild best. Now he’ll get the chance to see some of the world’s most vast remaining wilderness, even while its very existence is threatened by a rapidly changing climate.
At the pier, we slowly escort Mom and Dad up the long gangplank to the boat, a new 4000-passenger and 1400-crew member cruise ship. As soon as the boat is out of the harbor, Dad goes out on deck to site our location. I snap a picture of his beaming face as he surveys the waters bordered by dark forest, a smile I wasn’t sure I would see again during the long months he endured chemotherapy. Even with Dad in remission, I still can’t help but feel how transitory each moment must be.
Standing on the deck with a view of Alaska’s wilderness, I recognize we’re running out of time for the environment, too. While we’re on the cruise, news comes of Arctic ice breaking up in what had been considered the last likely area for ice to melt due to its thickness and age. Extra warm summer temperatures and warmer winds caused previously perennial ice in northern Greenland to open, pushing this older ice into warmer ocean waters where it would melt more easily. Even though the ice will form again in colder temperatures, this new breakup raises concerns about an altered feedback loop between temperature and wind patterns that will accelerate glacier ice melt.
Needless to say, without glaciers, Alaskan cruises won’t be the same.
On our first full day on board, the sea is rough as our ship skirts the ocean side of Vancouver Island. In our small room like a cross between an attic cubby and a rowboat overlooking the ship’s prow, Kari and I wake queasy to a call that Dad’s insulin is off, a reminder we need to pay closer attention to medications. While my parents nap before lunch, I read in their cabin with the door open to feel the ocean breezes.
Suddenly, I hear shouts from next door. I hit the deck just in time to see four dolphins jumping a cresting wave, like parallel gliders in perfect symmetry. How lucky to glimpse such elegant mammals in their aquatic habitat! I spend the afternoon with my family inside on the observation deck hoping for another of nature’s shows, but nothing breaks the surface in the vast and sparkling waters that surround us.
Because of Alaska’s immense size and sparse population, the signs of environmental crisis I’m used to observing in Colorado like urban sprawl, loss of farmland and wilderness, and smoggy skies, are less apparent in Alaska to the visitor’s eye than back home. Here the forests we pass seem endless, a view Jonathan Raban in Passage to Juneau calls “emptiness on a luxurious scale,” an “epic sweep of tenantless waterfront property” offered as a tourist attraction. Despite this façade of eternal wilderness, however, temperatures are rising and glaciers are shrinking. In as little as 50 years, they may be gone. Native experiences of climate change testify to how unprecedented changes in seasons and cycles of the natural world are impacting the quality and sustainability—in essence, the survivability–of life not just in the north, but everywhere.
As the cruise ship heads for Tracy Arm Fjord, I count myself lucky glaciers are still around. We travel for hours through aquamarine, mineral-rich waters, and bobbing icebergs to reach the end of the bay where the North and South Sawyer glaciers join and advance to the sea, where they halt in an icy wall. While we glide past deeply forested fjords and glacial melt waterfalls ravining down to the icy water, I tell Dad this landscape is a lot like the homeland of his hardy ancestors in the dark fjords of Norway. “Hardy Norwegians” is a joke with us. When he was ill, I’d remind him he came from the kind of stock that persevered through frigid weather and tough times.
The nearer we draw to the tidewater glacial bay, the larger the icebergs become, some like floating landing strips for arctic birds. In thick sweaters, we watch the silent scenery from my parent’s deck. I wonder if the sea’s vibrantly blue-green hue is particular to the mineral content of these glaciers.
Glaciers are frozen rivers on land that break off or “calve” at their termination point into icebergs; polar ice covers the ocean. As the atmosphere surrounding the earth holds in more heat from greenhouse gases, the climate warms, amplifying the rate of warming near polar regions through a feedback loop: as ice melts from increased temperatures, more water is created, which then heats and causes the ice to melt more rapidly. Other processes such as poleward air and water vapor movement also contribute to polar amplification. As polar ice and glaciers melt, high-latitude ecosystems are changed in many ways, the most prominent being sea level rise, which threatens coastal communities.
Approaching the steep blue walls of glacial river ice halted at the water’s edge, I see what look like giant tire tracks sweeping down the ice field, marks which are actually rock and sediment debris drawn from glacier passage between the mountains and exposed under melting ice. These darker materials absorb heat and increase the melting in another glacial feedback loop.
On my previous trip, the cruise ship had pulled very near a glacier where, as drinks were served on deck, we watched a column of ice sheer away and crash into the water. “Calving” is a peculiar term for this phenomenon; is an iceberg a baby glacier? I asked a steward whether the vibration of the ship through the water causes the ice to calve. “They’ll say it doesn’t,” he replied, “but it does.” I don’t know the extent of a ship’s glacial impact, but I have read that some captains even blast their horns to give passengers a calving experience.
On this trip, our ship, which is much larger than the ship on my previous cruise, doesn’t draw nearly as close to the edge of the glacier and I am relieved. The ice is certainly as towering as I had seen before, but no calving occurs. Dad and I watch for seals on ice floes as the boat slowly turns in a circle so that everyone gets a view of Sawyer glacier from their cabin or deck. It feels like we’re at the top of the world and there’s nowhere to go but down. Standing next to my father, a shiver of grief passes through me from the sense that my time with him and the existence of all of this beauty will someday pass.
The only other ship we see at Tracy Arm Fjord that day is a small tourist boat idling near the glacial wall for a close-up view. Sea-going vehicles introduce particulates to these pristine places, so regulations allowing only two cruise ships per day in certain bays are intended to limit anthropogenic damage for financial, as well as environmental, reasons. No one wants to see an iceberg through a smoggy haze, but seeing an iceberg at all may no longer be a choice in the not-so-distant future.
Staying on the deck to watch the ship finish turning, I hear a woman cry out at seeing a seal slip off an ice floe into the water, but I’m too late for the sighting. The thud of ice chunks hitting the boat and the motor slowly running are the only sounds in the bay. As the sun dips lower in the gray sky, the boat circles around to an exit position before heading out of the fjord. With the glaciers receding behind us, I say a final goodbye, not only to this beautiful blue bay, but to the glaciers, as well. Whether my farewell means I won’t likely return to Alaska or because the glaciers themselves are disappearing, I’m not sure, but this tug of despair seems always with me these days, a premonition of loss layered throughout my everyday life.
Knowing Dad would love the summit view of Alaskan wilderness and the history of the dangerous Gold Rush route, Kari and I had planned to take our parents on the White Pass Scenic Railway. But with mom’s bad back, we decide a tour of Skagway on a historic streetcar will be better for her than a forty-mile, bumpy ride on a narrow-gauge train. I know Dad is disappointed to miss the train and the view, but the streetcar tour will include a scenic overlook and we can spend some time afterward poking around the town’s historic district.
Skagway is the northernmost spot on our cruise and the weather is colder there that day than we’d seen all week. As we are leaving the boat, one of the cruise stewards hands us small poncho packets, just in case.
The “streetcar” is a restored 1927 touring car that today we would call a bus. Our guide, costumed in a long dress, white lace petticoat and pantaloons, and wide-brimmed hat of the Gold Rush era, tells stories of Skagway’s frontier days. We stop at the historic cemetery for a dramatic tale of outlaw Soupy Smith’s death-by-shootout. At the Skagway overlook, Dad — ever the surveyor ⎯ notices how streets are laid out, how close the houses are to each other, and how the terrain underneath rises and falls. He and I snap pictures of each other with the town and bay behind us. With his dark hood drawn around his face in the drizzly rain, Dad looks a little like a turtle peeking out of his shell to see what the world holds so far away from home. Our guide shares some of the difficulties of living in a remote area, like the necessity of carrying flight insurance in case of emergency care when their tiny local clinic isn’t open, which is much of the time.
As we leave the bus, we ask our guide for a lunch recommendation. Skagway Brewing Company, she says, is where the locals eat, but we’d have to walk seven long blocks to get there. We decide we can make it. With the wind and rain whipping around us, we feel like we’re on an excursion in the best sense of the term, away from the ship, away from schedules, and out into the Alaskan elements, if only for a few hours. And the walk is worth it; the seafood and the local camaraderie buoy our spirits.
My parents will later say that our day in Skagway was their favorite day of the cruise. Seeing a small Alaskan town, the wood houses and well-tended gardens of people living in a remote place, was a notable part of the excursion for them. Coming originally from a small northern community themselves, they can relate to the modest neighborhoods with the sense of people getting by the best they can.
That night we celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary at one of the ship’s fancier restaurants. As the staff gathers around the table to sing and light candles on a lovely cake, I am grateful for our day’s adventure. We braved the climate, pushed our limits, and discovered new lands in ways that challenged our normal routines. However modest those efforts have been, we have accomplished them together, and we are closer for it.
The next day we face another long ocean passage after a rough night at sea. The ship is starting to feel confining. It seems some passengers are there to observe a small part of Alaska’s ecological wonders, while others come for the ever-open seductions of racetrack, pool, casinos, bars, and shops. With our excursions behind us, we are tired of onboard frivolities. We are tired of over-eating in the buffet and restaurants. We are even tired of getting around the ship, especially trying to get one of the too-few elevators with Mom in her wheelchair.
We spend the afternoon on the inside observation deck, playing cards and hoping for a wildlife sighting to break the monotony. “There’s not a darn thing out there,” Dad complains.
“Yes, there is,” I say.
“Water.” He laughs. Dad’s surveying roots are showing. Water is okay for a while, but he’d rather be looking at land.
On the last day at sea, I am determined to spot an ocean creature. I head back with my camera to the observation deck for an hour by myself. As I snap a picture of a fishing boat with a bait cage floating nearby, I hear people around me cheering and I look up in time to see a big, black tail fin diving back down into the waves. I also see several spouts heading west. Someone says a pod means we spotted an orca. I wish I had seen the whole creature. Orcas, like everything else in the ocean, are endangered by the climate crisis. At least I have the photo to show where the orca had been.
That afternoon, my parents accompany Kari and me to the final show of the Beatles tribute group that played every evening in the imitation Cavern Club. Mom says she’d forgotten how good their songs are and Dad says the group was just getting started as we moved to Colorado when I was four and Kari was two. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been a fan. The concert is our last event on the boat and I’m struck by the travel parallel. If moving from North Dakota to Colorado had been our first trip together, this cruise may be our last.
That night I realize I haven’t spent such concentrated time with my parents since I was in high school. I feel like an hourglass has been turned upside down: I am caring for my parents now, as they once cared for me. Looking both behind and ahead, I steer a course toward the foregone conclusion.
In natural cycles, time passes, things change, and death is always imminent. I can’t imagine living without my parents, but accepting the naturalness of life cycles seems to make the idea of their passing a little easier. However, the ecological demise we now face on this planet is not natural, but rather nature’s response to unnatural and disruptive human-caused conditions. In other words, there’s death in the way there’s always been death–and then there’s mass extinction of all species, including our own. Coming face-to-face with the demise of Alaskan glaciers on this trip has brought ecological disruption into panoramic view—with my tourist presence a part of the problem.
While the loss of my parents threatens like a lightning bolt from nowhere, the specter of environmental loss engulfs me like a flame. It may be senseless to compare these fates, yet on this trip, I feel them side-by-side. I chose to accompany my parents on this cruise despite the ecological costs, but I do not know if I have chosen well. For all of us, personal and ecological losses will become ever more connected as the human death rate from environmental degradation rises too. Our decisions today will bring us increasingly into conflict with our futures as we await the final call.