This past year I had an upswing in the number of clients I sent to Alaska—mostly via cruise. Now for those of you are highly concerned with your carbon footprint, a cruise exploring the Alaskan coast can feel impossible. Cruise ships can seem like bulbous towns that excrete waste wherever they go. So how can you see Alaska sustainably? This blog post contains some possible unique solutions, so buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Note: Thanks to my clients Amy & Damian for use of their pictures of Alaska for this blog post!
Why yes, cruising in an eco-friendly way is possible, and that even includes cruising around Alaska. In my travel-agenty opinion, Un-Cruise is your best sustainable option for taking an Alaskan cruise. First and foremost the ships they take to Alaska hold no more than 76 passengers. No, no, you read that right: not 760 passengers, 76. When was the last time you went on a cruise with only 75 other passengers? These ships aren’t mega-ships; they’re expedition vessels. (A little off the sustainability topic: the size of the ship and amount of passengers means that every stateroom has a picture window instead of a teeny-tiny porthole! And that’s pretty useful for when you’re cruising through the Inside Passage.)
But smaller ships aren’t the only way Un-Cruise achieves sustainability: they have several “responsible travel actions” and have paired up with organizations (in and out of the tourism industry) to make travel more sustainable. My favorite partnership is with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List—they were the first, and as far as I know, only cruise company to team up with the aquarium. Un-Cruise only serves seafood listed on the watch list as “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative.” Some of their other programs include implementing recycling programs in ports and having no bottled water on their ships—which if you’ve cruised know is stunning for them to pull off!
Un-Cruise’s Alaskan cruises start at $2895/person and sail April-September. One last factoid, they also have tour extensions, so if hanging out in Denali National Park or taking the Rocky Mountaineer through Canada is something you’ve always wanted to do, you can do that with Un-Cruise!
Oh, Kelsey, you might be thinking, that would be swell except $2895 plus airfare is more than I can spare at the moment. Do not worry, Hypothetical Person, there’s another option for you if you have your heart set on exploring Alaska aquatically!
Alaska Marine Highway System
The Alaska Marine Highway System is a ferry system designated a scenic byway! It goes almost everywhere up and down the southern coast. Don’t want to just see the Inside Passage? The AMHS can take you all the way to Dutch Harbor in Unalaska. (It’s pretty dang far west—look it up.) Some little villages on Alaska’s coast can only be visited by boat or floatplane, and the AMHS services them! (If getting to Alaska is part of your struggle, you can also catch a ferry from Bellingham, WA or Prince Rupert, BC.)
The AMHS is a singular way to travel. You can book a cabin, and they have single or bunk-bed berths. Most, but not all of the cabins, have private bathrooms. (However, pillows and blankets aren’t included, and must be rented for the purser’s office.) But why would you get a cabin when you can literally camp onboard?!
Camping can range from unrolling a sleeping bag out in the recliner areas to pitching a tent on an upper deck. The AMHS offers hot and cold food throughout the day at self-service dining areas, but passengers may bring their own coolers and picnic items—so you can really, truly camp out. And, like most cruises, passengers are allowed an exorbitant amount of luggage: 100 lbs. per person.
The AMHS isn’t just an incomparable way to travel that I want to do right now before I even finish writing this sentence, it’s also more eco-friendly than the big ol’ cruise ships. The AMHS is a voluntary participant in the Green WATERS Program, which goes above and beyond the standards set by the International Maritime Organization and US EPA. It also participates in programs to reduce hazardous waste and recycle paper and plastic products among other programs.
So that’s exploring Alaska by sea! What about by land?
Amtrak does not operate in Alaska, so Alaska has its own rail system. The Alaska Railroad has 470 miles of track, but because of the vastness of Alaska, the rail system runs through a limited part of the state. The railroad runs from Seward in Southcentral Alaska all the way up to Fairbanks. (However, no route exists that will take you from Seward to Fairbanks or vice versa.) While the rail system may not cover a large portion of the state, it does take you to some of the most popular destinations. Denali National Park is accessible by rail, as is the town Portage (with a wildlife conservation center), backcountry in Chugach National Forest, and several glaciers.
Since the winter is so harsh in Alaska, it’s difficult to keep the railway clear and safe. During the winter the rail system is modified and most routes don’t run. When it runs in the summer, the Alaska Railroad offers two levels of service: GoldStar Service and Adventure Class. GoldStar Service features a better view with glass dome ceilings (just check out the picture below!), meals and drinks included, and a narrator/guide. Adventure Class has some awfully big windows though, so if you’re trying to stick to a budget, you won’t miss much of the view in Adventure Class. And of course, if you’re looking for a guided tour to explore the land more in depth, they offer tours ranging from one to ten nights.
(A note about alternative transportation like hiking, biking, or kayaking: I chose not to address it this blog post. Most of my readers are less likely to want to travel exclusively by these means. If you do have questions about hiking/biking/kayaking/etc. around Alaska, please don’t hesitate to contact me!)
So that about summarizes how to travel through Alaska sustainably.
But wait—that only includes a limited part of Alaska! What about Northern Alaska; what about all those other National Parks?
Well here’s where we talk all serious about sustainable travel.
There are some bus options around the state, but to get to more than what the railroad or ferry allows, you’re relegated to a 15-passenger bus. And I’m sorry, but shuttles like that are not very sustainable. If you are thinking about visiting Northway or other cities not serviced by the ferry or train, you’re going to have to choose between sustainability and the destinations. Several National Parks that I’d love to see are only accessible by roads or air taxis, but more sustainable transportation exists, I’m going to have to pass on visiting those destinations. (If I ever do go to Alaska, I’ll most likely have to fly to get there, and that’s enough carbon emission to offset, thank you.)
Traveling and living sustainably always requires sacrifices.
Whether it’s denying ourselves something we want to do because the environmental costs are too high (like not traveling to parts of Alaska) or sacrificing our time by taking slower transportation (like taking a train instead of a plane), these are sacrifices we need to get used to considering and acting on if we’re committed to traveling sustainably. And while that may seem like a bummer (“I’ll never get to see all of Alaska!”), the good news is there is so much beauty in the world that even if you miss some, you’ll more than make up for it at other destinations!
Now get out there and go!