M/V Malaspina departs Auke Bay west of Juneau

M/V Malaspina departs Auke Bay west of Juneau (John Hyde, Handout)

Glaciers, mountains, whales and fresh fish — scads of fresh fish — all await visitors to southeast Alaska. But if you come by cruise ship, scads of tacky dockside shops and huge crowds also await.

Last summer, cruise liners disgorged 876,000 passengers at Juneau, Alaska's beautiful capital. On the busiest day, with five cruise ships in port simultaneously, 17,000 tourists descended on this town, whose population is just 31,000.

Most boarded buses for trips to popular and worthwhile sights such as Mendenhall Glacier and the peak of Mount Roberts, reached by an aerial tramway. But some folks would argue that snapping a photo of a black bear snagging a sockeye from a mountain creek is hardly a Kodak moment when you're squeezed onto a viewing platform like pickled herring into a jar.

For independent-minded souls, adventurous alternatives await throughout the panhandle of our 49th state, using comfortably sized ferry boats, instead of sprawling cruise ships, to reach various communities, some of which aren't among the big ships' ports of call.

The fishing village of Petersburg, its compact downtown full of rosemaling-adorned businesses representative of its Norwegian heritage, is a destination inaccessible to large cruise ships by design. Local residents voted against building a deep-water port.

"We did not want to change the flavor of the community," said the chamber of commerce's Sally Dwyer.

"We get about 50 people a week that come to our visitor center and say, 'We were on the ferry and decided to stop here.'"

Having made the stop, independent travelers find plenty to enjoy, sans crowds, in this town deep in the Tongass rain forest.

"You go to LeConte Glacier, and you're going to go in a boat with a maximum of six passengers in it," said Dave Berg, owner of Viking Travel.

"You can walk the docks and see the different types of fishing boats. You can enjoy local seafood at the restaurants," he continued. "Whale watching is really good out of here. We can connect people to places to go bear viewing."

Fishing charters, from day trips aboard small boats to weeklong stays on luxurious yachts, also are available. And visitors are welcome to stop in at Tonka Seafood to watch as wild salmon is cooked — in steam, not boiling water — and packaged.

A vital arm of state government, the ferry system provides affordable, year-round transportation to 15 southeast Alaska communities, plus Prince Rupert, British Columbia. "Outsiders," a nickname for folks from the lower 48, can visit as many as five of these towns using the See Alaska Pass. Valid May through September, the pass costs $160.

Aboard the ferries, there's a bohemian feel.

"This isn't a cruise ship. We're the bus," observed Mike Queen, the M/V Taku's chief purser.

Small but functional staterooms can be booked at an extra charge. But backpackers often opt to pitch their tents for free on the ferries' open rear decks.

"We tell people to tape them down. We won't go back for a tent overboard," Queen said.

The purser described the sheltered waters of the Inside Passage as the "whale freeway." At times, hundreds of whales can be seen surfacing to breathe while feeding on large schools of herring.

In Juneau, ferries arrive at Auke Bay instead of the downtown docks reserved for cruise liners. A right turn from the ferry terminal leads passengers 12 miles into town (and Mendenhall Glacier beyond), but more intrepid travelers may wish to turn left at the sign that reads, simply, "End of Road 24."

Heading west, or left, from the ferry port, visitors are treated to breathtaking vistas of other glaciers and the shoreline. And the cruise lines' tour buses don't ply this route.