North to Alaska

Treading Lightly is the Green Alternative to the Cruise Ship Scene

When it comes to Alaska, half the challenge is getting there. The Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association (AWRTA) reports that more and more travelers are carefully choosing their transportation to America’s last frontier.

But more than a half million people a year still see Alaska from the decks of large 2,000-passenger cruise ships.

While the state’s economy may thrive on bulk tourism, local communities and the marine ecosystem suffer. In the past decade, many cruise lines have been fined for illegally dumping their sewage. And carriers to Alaska are no exception. Royal Caribbean International and the state of Alaska agreed on a $3.5 million fine for waste-dumping incidents.

According to President Kirk Hoessle, Alaska Wildland Adventures organizes small tours so that visitors can "experience the solitude and observe the wildlife without disturbing it."
Alaska Wildland Adventures

Vessels must be at least three miles offshore before they can legally dispose of treated waste water. On many coastlines, three miles is sufficient to properly dilute waste in the open sea. But while fourth-grade science may have taught that dilution is the solution to pollution, that’s not necessarily the case in Southeast Alaska. There are places called doughnut holes that are technically three miles from shore in any direction yet still a long way from open seas. Ships legally can, and do, empty their tanks in such places, including one such doughnut hole at the entrance to famed Glacier Bay National Park.

Some Alaskan municipalities have responded by levying environmentally based taxes on its tourists. Juneau, for instance, taxes cruise visitors $5 per head (collecting a total of $3 million per year) for damages incurred while sightseeing.

Into the Wild

AWRTA’s primary goals are to conserve the wild in Alaska, strengthen nature-based travel businesses and encourage a sense of community. Director Sarah Leonard recognizes the important financial role that cruise companies play in Alaska’s economy, but she also sees the need for balance. "Most of our businesses rely on nature as a part of their business," says Leonard.

Members of AWRTA choose to operate their businesses in a socially and ecologically responsible manner, often leaving their destinations in better condition than when they arrived. Alaska Wildland Adventures, for one, donates at least 10 percent of pre-tax profits to local environmental groups that work to keep the Alaskan wilderness wild.

According to Alaska Wildland Adventures President Kirk Hoessle, "Alaska should be encountered face to face, explored in a small group where you can see the vastness, experience the solitude and observe the wildlife without disturbing it. Nature unfolds on its own schedule. If you’re rushing from one place to another or sitting in a cruise ship, you"ll miss magic moments."

"The smaller boats, the flexible itinerary and a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service allow us to have access to wilderness areas and take our guests ashore where others aren’t allowed," explains Peter Butz, vice president of operations at Lindblad Special Expeditions. "We have five naturalists and four guides. So some can kayak, some hike, and some just stay along the beach and look at tide pools." Guests of Lindblad, which also provides funding to the Alaska Whale Foundation, have experienced such once-in-a-lifetime sightings as bubblenet-feeding humpback whales.

Leading wilderness adventures since 1972, Alaska Discovery helps protect the area while providing adventurers with an unforgettable kayaking experience within Alaska’s wildlands. "We sell some trips that aren’t camping, but I think our camping trips—where you can fall asleep at night and hear the whales—are what it’s all about," says co-owner Susan Warner. "It’s really important for Alaska travelers to see untouched land."

The quintessential Alaska-bound traveler is "an open-minded person who comes to learn," says Leonard. "Someone who leaves the most minimum impact—cultural or physical—and takes with them an increased knowledge about the area or culture."

There are plenty of ways to experience Alaska without also harming it.

Stephanie Irving travels from her home base in Trout Lake, WA.