I stood at a railing of the Majestic Princess on a still July morning. Clouds wreathed familiar peaks; gulls wheeled, seals and salmon swirled, and the land glowed green with the southeast Alaskan summer. As I scanned the Ketchikan waterfront, it was hard to imagine a more perfect day. But something about the entire scene seemed different—downright odd, in fact.
And then it hit me, a line from some corny black-and-white western: everything was quiet…too quiet. Where were the lines of tour buses and cabs jockeying for position, the throngs of folks bustling down the pier toward downtown, the lines of floatplanes idling, picking up guests, then roaring down the channel? Where were the other cruise ships, ranging from big to humungous, that should have been moored nearby—two or three others, often carrying 10,000-plus souls aboard, more than the town’s entire population?
Well, of course we had the pandemic to thank for that silence. The previous year, the entire cruise ship industry, which had been projecting a record-breaking Alaska season, 1.2-plus million passengers, had, instead, been shut down cold—a hard but necessary move to keep the virus from running wild through the Great Land. The Alaskan-sized economic slump that followed was no surprise, hitting myriad businesses from Utqiagvik to Ketchikan and tens of thousands of workers not just from Alaska, but far beyond. Thanks to federal and state aid, hunkering and belt-tightening, most had found a way to hang on until the following season, and this, for better or worse, was it.
The first voyage
Here I was in mid-July, on Princess’s first voyage of the Alaska season; normally, they’d have completed dozens by now with six or more ships, and the other roughly half-dozen major cruise lines, close to the same. Princess decided on running just one vessel to start back up, the Majestic, for a total of nine one-week cruises on a somewhat unusual route: Seattle, Juneau, Glacier Bay, Skagway, then Ketchikan on a leg back to Seattle. There’d be no staging out of Vancouver, British Columbia, a favored cruise terminal; the Canadian government had opted to stay locked down. And Whittier, the other main terminal on Prince William Sound (connected by motor coach and rail to Anchorage, Denali Park, and Fairbanks) would remain closed this season as well.
The Princess plan itself was cautious, yet ambitious: vaccinate the entire 1,400-person crew (they ended up within two percentage points of that goal); quarantine them aboard for two-plus weeks before the first cruise, with frequent virus tests; and during that time, prepare and train—captain to cabin steward—a set of constantly evolving protocols and procedures for cruising safely in the time of COVID. Princess brass were hands-on, simultaneously participating in and observing the process, which included masking at all times except eating and in-cabin. And of course, building and keeping morale high was vital to success. Everyone had to buy in to make it work.
“I was going stir crazy,” said lounge pianist David Juneau, a buddy from past Alaskan cruise seasons who withstood the all-hands quarantine for the safety of the arriving guests. “That’s a long time to be aboard, not playing for people, and zero chance to get off.” But every crew member and entertainer I spoke with said the stress was worth it. For many, the cruise industry was a livelihood that had been put on hold with little warning. Irish guitarist/singer Tony Delaney told me he’d busked on the streets to get by.
Further complicating matters, the more contagious Delta variant of the virus began its worldwide surge around that same time. Nonetheless, the Majestic Princess crew emerged from their quarantine with flying colors, cleared for the abbreviated Alaskan season—a rather remarkable collective feat. When I joined the ship in mid-July, the day before guest embarkation, I’d had to produce proof of vaccination and receive an immediate test and was to stay in my cabin as much as possible.
Passengers on board
When they boarded, all tourists, too, had to produce vax cards and clean test results. But things had to be a bit different for them. They were, after all, paying for a vacation—at least a bit of escape and relief from the pandemic blues. Masks wouldn’t be mandatory, and unlike the crew, no quarantine possible. Guests had to be able to set foot in ports of call and do all the usual stuff: eat, shop, go on tours, and so on. And though onboard elbow rubbing was reduced by new policies—no self-serve buffet lines, for example—some entertainment venues would, at times, be filled for the headline shows. Furthermore, thousands of people would be coming and going each week, all season long. Any sort of virus-free guarantee was impossible. In the end, every new person on every Alaskan cruise was a roll of the dice for a multibillion-dollar industry. But here we were—so far, so good. And on my second and final cruise, the same. Far as I do know (I’m writing this from my Ambler place on the upper Kobuk, in mid-September), there were a few isolated cases, but no onboard COVID outbreaks during the Alaskan cruise ship season.
So, what did cruising Alaska in the time of COVID look and feel like? I couldn’t say for sure from the visitor’s perspective—I was, after all, keeping to myself most of the time when I wasn’t giving a presentation—but everyone seemed pretty damn thrilled. Alaska, the ultimate symbol of unbounded freedom and possibility, was still there. It’s hard not to hope in a place like this.