story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
I’ve been aboard the ship one hour when a fellow passenger spots orcas off to the left, three hours when the captain points to a pod of humpbacks 100 yards to the right.
The next morning a bald eagle soars overhead while I’m eating breakfast. For someone who grew up in places where a neighborhood park was considered a wilderness area, Alaska is indeed an alternate universe.
My husband and I are on the Island Spirit, a 32-passenger ship that’s one of the smallest commercial vessels to ply the Inside Passage. During a nine-day outing we weave into small inlets that are off-limits to larger vessels, visit a limestone grotto that’s hidden in a fairytale forest, and hike among the towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock of Tongass National Forest. At 17 million acres, Tongass is the nation’s largest national park.
What we don’t do is check email (no wi-fi), use our cell phone (no cell service) or give two hoots about the state of the world. We are wonderfully, blissfully disconnected.
Before we left home, we made a Bucket List of Alaskan Must-Sees. Number One: Bears.
Along with six other passengers we take a sturdy skiff to a narrow stream that’s bridged by a small waterfall. The driver turns off the motor.
After about five minutes a bear ambles out of the forest, walks to a rock, stares into the stream. He’s a picky one, evidently not too hungry, because although the stream is filled with vividly pink salmon, he merely contemplates them and eventually wanders away.
Meanwhile an older bear walks down the same path, scoops up a salmon, looks straight at us as if posing for a photo and disappears into the forest. This bear should be a tourism ambassador.
We cross Number One off our Bucket List. Now we can concentrate on Number Two: Whales.
With the flexibility offered by a small ship, the captain can alter course based on whim, weather or, as we soon learn, whales. He steers the boat up to a large group of the giant mammals — not just any whales but huge humpbacks engaged in bubble net feeding, a ritual that involves surrounding small fish (usually herring) with a “net” of bubbles, pushing the trapped bait to the surface and in a genetically choreographed dance leaping out of the water to devour their catch. It is, for me, the highlight of the trip. I give it a Bucket List star.
Of course, we also see other marine creatures — sun starfish, a sea lion trying to climb a buoy, a variety of iridescent jellyfish, and sea anemones that shimmer like glass sculptures.
Bucket List Number Two — check. We move on to Number Three: Small Towns.
The state of Alaska has about the same number of people as the city of Charlotte, yet it is more than twelve times as big as the entire state of North Carolina. It has fewer people per square mile than any state in the United States. In short, it’s easier to find a village than a city.
We stop at Tenakee Springs, a tiny community that was once the home of the Tlingit Indians. Now, since the canneries have closed and the young people have been forced to move to the cities to find work, there are only about sixty full-time residents. Another forty or so come during the summer, drawn by the slow pace, abundant hiking trails, hot springs and Darius Mannino’s locally famous cinnamon buns.
A few days later we go to Petersburg, a village of 2,000 people that was founded by Norwegian settlers. Fishing is good in this part of the Alaska — people talk of catching 400-pound halibut and 30-pound salmon— and one in three residents is directly involved in the fishing industry.
Petersburg is out-of-reach for big-ship travelers, but small ships provide enough visitors to support a three-block long Main Street that includes a top-notch bookstore, a hardware store that has morphed into a full general store with everything from bear-themed socks to seven-legged crab magnets.
There are a couple of bars, one of which offers beer, pool, music and painting classes — all at the same time.
Our final Bucket List item: Wilderness.
Alaska is home to dense forests and magnificent waterfalls, but it’s the glaciers and fjords that give it its mystique. There are an estimated 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, but only about 600 of them have been named.
Our first glacier-sighting is Baird Glacier. We depart the skiff and walk carefully along a path of polished rocks, trying not to step on the moss or sprain an ankle.
Suddenly, ahead of us the mountains open to reveal a wall of chunky ice — not at all the slippery iridescence of Dawes Glacier, which we’ll see the following day, but instead a rather gray collection of large rocks, the result of melting ice that reveals underlying sediment. We are seeing geology in motion.
The next day we see motion of another type. It’s early morning when we board the skiff for the ride to Dawes. The sky is gloriously blue, the temperature chillingly cold. I pull my scarf up to cover my face and then I hear it — the sounds of crashing ice. Large chunks of ice are breaking off the end of the glacier and splashing in the water. In other words the glacier is calving, or birthing, icebergs.
The navigator steers the ship to one of the outlying chunks. It’s a small chunk, as icebergs go, but no one complains. It’s real, Alaskan glacier ice, and that’s more than enough for us.
But it isn’t until that afternoon when we reach Ford’s Terror that we experience Alaskan-style Wilderness. The secluded fjord is guarded by a narrow channel that can only be traversed at specific times and by very small ships. The Island Spirit is one of the few — if not only — commercial ship to overnight in Ford’s Terror. I can’t decide whether to be thrilled by its beauty or terrified by our isolation, as was Ford, the naval surveyor whose adventure gave the inlet its name.
The next morning we awaken to a universe of complete solitude. The water is calm, the trees high, the clouds low and the air misty due to an overnight rain.
We spend the day exploring the area by kayak and skiff. The mist adds to the magic, and we’re reluctant to return to the ship. But the captain has reminded us that we have only fifteen minutes when the waters will be high enough for us to safely exit the fjord.
Otherwise, we’ll be trapped by the tides for another six hours. Tempting to be sure, but we all have planes to catch.
Our bucket list is complete. Our Alaskan fantasy has become a reality.
For tips on what to see in Juneau, which is a popular place for pre- or post-cruise extensions, go to the SMALL BITE section of this website and see the article on “Jumping off in Juneau.”