A January visit to Alaska – one featuring ice fishing, dog mushing and chasing the Northern Lights 70 miles above the Arctic Circle – only whetted my appetite for another slice. In particular, I longed to see glaciers before further impact by global warming. I read that within a century there will no longer be glaciers at Glacier National Park.
So, it was necessary to book a cruise to experience an array of icebergs. I had never embarked on such a trip. I was always wary of rigid schedules and the possibility of being stuck at sea with unpleasant, disagreeable passengers. But I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted to eyeball glaciers and wild animals residing well off the grid.
I avoided the cruise experience like I eschewed the minivan, until I had a third child. Both work for me. After thumbing my nose at behemoth boats, I was drawn to Alaskan Dream Cruises, which offers small vessel adventures. There is no need to indulge in around-the-clock buffets, so I passed on the massive ships with all of the superfluous bells and whistles.
Prior to departure out of Juneau during the last week of August, I arrived early for a fishing trip and was not surprised that the charming town is the second-largest city in America by area. I was taken aback, however, by its small population, 32,000.
There isn’t even a concert venue of note in Juneau, but Dave McCasland, who owns Deckhand Dave’s Fish Tacos, said he will open a 500-capacity club. If the concert hall is on a par with his fresh-caught halibut and rockfish, prepare for a new music mecca.
Speaking of fish, it was off to Auke Bay in search of salmon with Adventures in Alaska. Since Juneau is part of a rainforest, I was pleasantly surprised to cast during a sun-dappled day.
I felt a tug on the line as I was reeling in my catch and then there was a jolt. My line was severed.
“You paid the taxman,” captain Alan Corbett said.
A salmon shark decided to pilfer my salmon.
“It happens,” deckhand Tanya Cadigan said. “Not often, but there’s nothing else in these waters that can rip your line like that.”
About a half-hour later, a silver salmon took the bait and I reeled him in and just like that, a 15-pounder was on board. It was a great start to a trip, which also featured a funicular ride 1,800 feet above sea level for a dramatic view of Juneau. Anyone who loves fresh, wild-caught seafood is in for a treat in Juneau. There’s always a line for Tracy’s King Crab Shack’s locally caught crab legs and crab bisque, but it’s worth the wait.
Juneau was just an appetizer for the main course, a cruise on the Alaskan Dream vessel from Juneau to Sitka.
“How do you like your flat-screen television?” my porter Anthony asked while pointing at the window of the spacious cabin. Pristine, turquoise water and bits of glaciers was much more compelling than anything on Netflix.
The first stop was Glacier Bay National Park, which was a reminder why I decided to take the cruise since the main way to experience such jaw-dropping grandeur is by boat. The stunning fjord extends 65 miles and contains eight tidewater glaciers. An array of wildlife resides in the remote and relatively undisturbed environment.
As we approached the glacier, I witnessed mountain goats on the edge of cliffs and Steller sea lions lounging on ice. Shortly after boarding a DIB (Demaree inflatable boat), we approached Margerie Glacier and I witnessed several calving displays. Calving is a form of ice ablation, which is the result of a breaking away of a mass of ice from a glacier. Shortly after the blocks of ice fell into the bay, our DIB, which was about 400 yards from the glacier, rocked back and forth due to the waves.
Even though it was the end of summer, I should have brought a hat and gloves. For much of the trip, the highs were in the upper 60s and lows in the lower 50s, but it’s always cold around glaciers. I was warned.
I left behind winter clothing but I remembered to pack my bathing suit, which came in handy for my polar plunge, which is optional, into Glacier Bay. I was reluctant to leap into the 42-degree drink but sinking into the briny water and swimming 20 yards to the dock I was absolutely exhilarated. Now I understand why some folks have immersion tanks! The experience was so invigorating.
We continued our exploration of southeast Alaska the following day. While en route to Colt Island, I made my first major discovery. While standing starboard with my new friend, Bob from Asheville, North Carolina, I spotted an orca. I watched as the mighty mammal popped up and out of the scenic bay and splashed with his tail before speeding away.
Our gray day was brightened by the sight of humpback whales, who unlike the orca seemed to enjoy the attention and basked by our vessel. When we finally reached Colt Island, it was time for a feast at Orca Point Lodge, where we indulged in crab legs, salmon and prime rib. The highlight of the following day was kayaking through Endicott Arm, a glacial fjord in the Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness region. We experienced our first bear sighting, black bears hunting for salmon about 100 yards from our kayak.
We docked at Mitkof Island in Petersburg, which is a small, charming fishing town. Petersburg, which is dubbed “Little Norway,” thanks to settlers from the Scandanavian country, could pass for a Norwegian village. Norway flags adorn shops and the old school Norwegian fish platters are featured in the few restaurants. A local school presented a pre-dance troupe, clad in bunads, which is folk attire, who rendered Norwegian dances. A Q and A followed with the children, who surprised us since many said they were content to live in the provincial town.
I was taken aback by a 12-year old blonde, who is a young Uma Thurman doppelganger. When asked about a vocation, the potential future starlet said she was content to fish for a living. Cool.
After lunch we trekked to scenic Frederick Sound and were treated to a humpback whale show at sunset. The breaching and endless tail lobbing was a sight to behold. One of the folks, who said he was “Glacieriered out,” was transfixed by the proximity of the whales, who seemed to enjoy being watched.
“You never get tired of this,” the fellow who said he is content to only see ice in his drink, uttered.
The whales were swimming in schools, spouting water and just basking in the late-day sunlight. The highlight of the final day was a visit to the Baronof Island’s Waterfall coast for a hike through a rain forest. While walking through trails shrouded by towering spruce and hemlock trees, we witnessed black bears cavorting on the coast and in the bay. While watching a female bear growl at a frisky male, I learned that bears eschew fights for fear of injury and the inability to hunt. It’s survival of the fittest for our furry friends as well.
Then it was off to our final destination, Sitka, and I’m over my cruise issues. Our guides, particularly Kenneth, were extraordinary. The insight and detail they provided was above and beyond the call since they made it easy to geek out over the wildlife and wilderness.
Hats off to the chefs, who made all three meals special each day. I miss the taste of Alaska, fresh salmon on a bagel, the sublime salmon and my favorite, the lamb chops.
My biggest fear was group activities with strangers, since it only takes a few jerks to ruin an experience. I’ve been on some whitewater runs that went awry due to some folks who weren’t team players.
When 70 strangers congregate for a week, the odds of a creep are high, but not only did I have a great time, I made a number of new friends. I can’t say enough about Bob and Laurie from Asheville, Oakland Annie, John, Keemo and Deirdre from Maui, Hawaii, and Carol from San Luis Obispo, California.
Regarding the latter, Carol reminded me of a character from one of my favorite films, the hilarious and brilliant “Defending Your Life,” which is about being stuck briefly in purgatory. During a particularly idyllic moment on the trip, Carole uttered a hilarious line, “Do you think we’re dead?” It felt like a potential glimpse into the afterlife and it felt fine.
A few other notes: Book early with a group like Alaskan Dream Cruises or Uncruise Adventures, (www.uncruise.com) if you would prefer a small-boat experience. During a weekend in May in Seattle, I enjoyed a day trip on an Uncruise vessel disembarking from the Puget Sound to Ballard Locks.
The highlight was kayaking on the sound, enjoying a salmon lunch and a dip in a hot tub. Uncruise offers extended Alaskan excursions, like Alaskan Dream Cruises.
When it comes to cruises, less really is more. You do receive considerable bang for your buck. I can still see the bears hunting salmon, the whales frolicking and the stunning glaciers, thanks to my iPhone and the memories, which are etched into my brain.