Stephens Passage is like the best shortcut in the world, a straight line through Southeast Alaska in a landscape that comes with very few straight lines. It’s not only people and ships that use the passage: Concentrated in and around its waters is a greatest hits of Alaskan wildlife, from humpback whales, the whoosh of their breath loud enough to be heard almost a kilometer away, to giant sea lions and their very distinctive smell—well, okay, call it a stink—that can carry just as far.
The southern reaches of Stephens Passage start at the edges of Frederick Sound, one of the best whale-watching areas in the state. The sound narrows and as you are funneled into the passage, the mountains come right down into the sea, high tide licking the roots of spruce and hemlock. In tiny bays, guillemots and gulls gather; when they take off at the ship’s wake, the noise is like applause.
The water of the passage is ridiculously deep, well over 300 meters (1,000 feet) in places. But in this landscape cut by the last ice age, you really have to measure to the mountain peaks for true scale: They climb to summits at 1,500 meters (5,000 feet), their slopes covered with forests, meadows that turn sunset into alpenglow, and best of all, by the purple tinge of glaciers that form the passage’s crown.