by Lee Foster
A week of small-ship cruising from Juneau, Alaska, through the wilderness waterways of the Alaska Southeast can get you close to humpback whales, orcas, glaciers, bears, and hundreds of islands covered with rain forests.
Such a trip may renew a traveler’s sense of the joy of nature and may reduce a certain citified malaise. A traveler may find that the experience of civilization needs to be offset from time to time with antidotes of wilderness.
Small Ship Culture
Small ship may carry less than 100 guests. Cabins are often comfortable and modern, with a picture window for views. The window can also be opened for fresh air. Binoculars sometimes provided in each cabin got plenty of use.
Meals are usually served open seating, and on my trip were ample. The chef on my week continued to deliver magic, with an emphasis on fresh Alaska fish and shellfish, especially salmon, halibut, and crab.
The entire style of the ship is informal. There is no need to dress for dinner. There are no keys for the cabin doors. The clientele is a self-selecting cluster of outdoor enthusiasts. Everyone onboard is here to enjoy nature.
Small durable inflatable boats take you off the ship to touch an iceberg, see the edge of a glacier, view arctic terns or seals up close, or meander and hike on shore.
A skilled naturalist usually guides the adventure, giving preparatory talks each night about what’s coming up next and then a running commentary, when the desired orcas or humpback whales make their unscheduled appearances. The naturalist for my voyage had just completed three years of humpback whale research in Hawaii.
This wilderness parade winds its way past islands whose trees are part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rain forest in North America. The captain can change the itinerary at a moment’s notice if wildlife viewing opportunities arise. There are often only a couple of port calls to make, and they were Kake and Sitka on my trip, both intriguing stops. No large cruise ship will ever be allowed to stop at Kake, a small village of 800 Tlingit natives.
A Week of Nature Adventures
Each day in a week of sailing presented a new watery terrain with an unfolding set of adventures.
Day 2: After getting on the ship the previous afternoon.
In the morning we ventured up Endicott Arm to its glacial terminus at Dawes Glacier, where everyone got off in the small inflatable boats to see the icebergs up close and watch seals. On this day, serendipitously, there happened to be massive “calving” off of the glacier. Calving means a large chunk of the glacier has fallen off into the water with a thunderous noise, creating a tidal wave. The Tlingit Indians actually had a word “white thunder” to describe the explosive sound. One ship officer said he had not seen such dramatic calving in the past seven years.
In the afternoon we ventured into Tracy Arms, a narrow 25-miles long glacially carved waterway with steep mountains alongside, much like the fjords of Norway. On the way we paused to watch a pod of orcas, or killer whales. Our naturalist determined that this was a transient pod, rather than a group of locals. At the Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arms there were many icebergs. On these ice floes seals congregated, partly because the ice floes are a safe place to escape their predators, the orcas.
Day 3: The day began with the ship moving carefully through glass-smooth Keku Channel, where more than a dozen humpback whales were spouting. Most were traveling alone, but occasionally there were two or three together, most probably to gather food more efficiently. Humpbacks sometimes entrap small bait fishes with a wall of bubbles and then lunge through the corralled food source.
Humpbacks are a joy to behold, partly because they are an endangered species making progress towards more stable numbers. From an estimated population in the North Pacific area of only about 1,000 in 1966, it is now believed they have climbed to 6,000-8,000 individuals. Humpbacks can grow to 45 feet and weigh a ton per foot. I was mesmerized by their showy behavior as they rolled their huge bodies through the water and then displayed their flukes before diving. One humpback even began slapping his pectoral fins playfully on the surface and then breached clear out of the water several times, using its tail, said to be the most powerful muscle on earth, to thrust the huge tonnage upward. Alaska is the humpbacks’ summer feeding grounds as they eat a ton a day, primarily consuming small shrimp-like creatures called krill. In winter these whales will journey to the warm waters of Hawaii, Mexico, or Japan to give birth and mate.
Another treat that day was a permission to land the small cruise vessel for a visit at the remote Tlingit Indian village of Kake, population 800. The Tlingits here are culturally intact, preserving their way of life. They staged several dances for us and explained their subsistence lifestyle of fishing for salmon, hunting for deer and moose, and doing their crafts, such as carving, in the leisure of winter. Their young people were well-spoken, had modern computers, and one high school graduate was proudly going off to college “down South,” which meant Colorado for that young man. They showed us what is asserted to be the world’s largest totem pole, carved in 1971 from a 132-foot Sitka spruce.
Day 4: This day was devoted to the fine art of “gunkholing,” which means the captain and the cruise director determine where we go and what we do, depending on what nature experience would be best. Only on a small cruise ship is such discretion possible.
We awoke and spent much of the day in the Bay of Pillars. At dawn and in the early morning hours shifting fog drifted about. Then the sky cleared and we offloaded in our durable inflatable boats and went ashore to explore on a rocky beach where an old salmon cannery lay in ruins, the rusting and rotting remnants of another boom and bust dream in Alaska. On the way into shore we observed lionmane jellyfish and stopped to examine huge bullwhip kelp that can grow two feet a day.
Without a skilled naturalist, much of what we saw that morning would have been pleasant, but uninformed. However, with our naturalist, we could turn over a rock and suddenly savor a universe of natural interactions. On the rocky shore at low tide we witnessed a cornucopia of starfish, clams, limpets, chitons, barnacles, mussels, crabs, eels, whelk, and bladder kelp. The interactions between all these creatures was an endless puzzle to decipher. Tiny chitons found their place in the small barnacles welded to defunct clam shells. Behind us rose thick stands of forest, with broadleaf alder at the base and then sharp-needled spruce and drooping hemlock commanding the upper reaches of light. Ripening in the understory sunlight of the forest, the salmonberries were turning gold and red, teasing the area’s bears with their aromatic lusciousness.
Day 5: Sitka, the Russian capital, was the cultural treat of the day. Seeking to expand their profitable fur trade, the Russians firmly captured Sitka in 1804, defeating a formidable native Tlingit native force, which had wiped out an earlier Russian expeditionary settlement two years earlier.
As we stepped off the ship into Sitka, there was a small promontory called Castle Hill that was the Russian residence of choice. Below it sits a Russian cannon today. A quarter of a mile further along the waterfront is Centennial Hall, outside of which is a statue to the main Russian visionary, Alexander Baranov, head of the Russian America Company. Also adjacent to Centennial Hall is a large and ornately decorated Tlingit canoe, a visitor’s first taste of the elaborate arts that the winter leisure cultures of Southeast Alaska nourished.
Within Centennial Hall, we saw the daily performance of a talented woman’s dance group known as the New Archangel Dancers. They recreate a range of Russian dances with much skill. The Centennial Hall also hosts the Sitka Historical Society museum, which shows an intriguing model of what Sitka looked like in 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. A natural history display at Centennial Hall offers taxidermy presentations of all the birds and mammals one is likely to see in Southeast Alaska.
Venturing one block inland, we looked at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, St. Michaels, an exact replica of the original 1840s church, which burned tragically in 1966, but was quickly rebuilt.
Walking further along the waterfront, we came to a yellow building, the Russian Bishop’s House, which has rooms filled with period artifacts. The Russians controlled Alaska until both the fur supply and fur market, much of which happened to be in China, deteriorated. The Russian Czar felt it was wiser to sell rather than wait for British/Canadian or American interests to seize the land.
Beyond the Russian Bishop’s House is the premier attraction of Sitka, the Sitka National Historical Park. We stopped first at the interpretive center to see the fine museum of the native people, especially the Tlingits, showing many artifacts, such as an elaborately decorated bear coat and staff to be worn by the most honored elder. Besides the museum, there is a carver, weaver, and silver craftsman at work. The master Tlingit carver present was working on a mask from red cedar or a food bowl from alder.
Then we walked through the forest adjacent to the interpretive center to immerse ourselves in three realities. The forest itself is a lush example of the rainforests of Southeast Alaska, with mature hemlock and Sitka spruce. Scattered throughout the forest are representative totem poles, one of the major art forms of the Alaska natives of the southeast. And, on these grounds, in 1804, a thousand Russian soldiers in the warship Neva, aided by their Aleut Indian allies, narrowly defeated 700 armed Tlingit, who felt it was wiser, after a week of bombardment, to slip back into the forest and relinquish their stronghold.
Day 6: On this day our small cruise ship poked around Icy Strait, the northernmost entrance to Southeast Alaska from the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. The area was especially rich in wildlife. The ship passed numerous rafts of sea otters, whose thick and rich pelts set in motion the historic development of Alaska. We paused for shore excursions in our inflatable boats along Idaho Inlet.
The captain was always on the lookout for bears. Almost every day we saw bears along the shore, feeding on sedge grasses, salmon, and shellfish. Bears have an uncanny ability to slice open a salmon to eat the fatty brain tissue and the eggs of the females. We saw the larger brown bears, called grizzly bears when found inland, easily identifiable by their size and their humps. Alaska is the last frontier for the brown or grizzly bear, hosting about 31,000 animals, compared to a total of 1,000 in the lower 48 states. Smaller black bears also prowled the shoreline, with its many small salmon streams, tidal shellfish abundance, and opportunities for carrion. There is a saying about bears in Alaska, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”
Bald eagles were another popular quarry in our wildlife spotting. The white heads of mature eagles could be seen easily against the green trees. There are now about 100,000 bald eagles in North America, half of which are in Alaska. Recently, the bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list, so this is one conservation success story to celebrate.
At mid-day we reached Cross Sound near the Inian Islands, a particularly strong upwelling point where the open ocean currents meet the more protected waters of the island channel. In this rich marine environment there was an explosion of life. Here we saw hundreds of huge northern sea lions and countless birds, from Bonaparte gulls to common murres. A birder on board confirmed that she had reach 38 birds in her desired quest for 50 identified birds. Anyone who reaches 50 gets a personally signed Wings Over Alaska certificate from the state’s Governor.
The day ended with the cruise ship drifting at Point Adolphus so we could savor the most elaborate display of humpback whales on our trip. At least a dozen whales cavorted all around us, feeding voraciously on bait fish. Several whales breached repeatedly. Some whales even seemed curious about the ship and ventured to within a few yards, though the captain was judicious and tried to keep out of their way and not approach them.
Day 7: Glacier Bay National Park was a grand finale for the trip, the most protected area in this Southeast Alaska wilderness. Glacier Bay is famous for its receding glaciers and fecund wildlife.
We paused first at South Marble Island to see the abundance of nesting birds and the 2000-pound stellar sea lions. Common murres on the island are known to be able to dive 600 feet in search of prey. Black-legged kittywakes were plentiful. This was our first sighting of tufted puffins.
Further north, at Sandy Cove, we watched a black bear feed on barnacles in the intertidal zone.
More than a third of the park is permanent ice and snow. For about 250 years people have observed the gradual retreat of most of these glaciers. In 1750 the bay was recorded to be a total mass of ice. By 1794 explorer George Vancouver indicated that it had retreated six miles. Today a boat can venture for 65 miles up the waterway. This is the fastest retreat of glaciers ever documented. An anomaly occurs with the Johns Hopkins Glacier, which happens to be advancing.
We floated for an hour in front of the massive mile-wide face of the John’s Hopkins Glacier, a 16-mile long river of ice, which was calving off as it approached the water, moving forward about 3-5 feet per day. It takes about 50 years for snow falling on Mt. Fairweather to make its way down to the ocean through the glacier. Mt. Fairweather happens to be among the snowiest places on earth, receiving about 150 feet per year, partly because of its heavy rain fall and partly because of its height, 15,300 feet, one of the steepest mountains close to the water in a cold environment.
Only two cruise ships and three smaller tour boats are allowed into Glacier Bay National Park each summer day, along with 25 personal craft, so access to the national park is tightly controlled. The park service continues to study the effect of ship wake and ship noise on the wildlife, especially the endangered humpback whales.
Starting from Juneau
The strategy of starting from Juneau has its logic and advantages, both for passengers and the small-cruise provider. Flying in and out of Juneau puts the entire time into the adventure itself, not some of it lost in “days at sea” to get there. Juneau is located in the midst of the Alaska wilderness area of the Southeast. This state capital is unusual in that it is totally inaccessible by road. While large cruise ships can get into Juneau in the main channel, only the small cruise ships can navigate in many of the narrow wilderness waterways near Juneau.
Allowing a night or two in Juneau before embarkation can greatly add to the satisfaction of this trip. Juneau is far more than just a cruise ship terminal. It has many cultural and natural treasures to offer. Local tours or a guide-with-a-vehicle can be engaged. The downtown and the Mount Roberts tram can be done on your own by walking. For other suggestions, you’ll need local transportation. Here are my recommendations for time spent in Juneau:
*View the Mendenhall Glacier, outside of town. This is a massive glacier to which you can drive. In summer the meadows in front of the glacier have brilliant fields of purple fireweed, a showy wildflower. After viewing the glacier from afar, drive close in to the Visitor Center and hike toward the ice mass and the voluminous Nugget Falls pouring out near its side.
The Mendenhall Glacier illustrates the main phenomenon of most modern glaciers in Alaska. They are receding due to global warming. Snow melt now exceeds snow fall at Mendenhall. Mendenhall is retreating roughly 60 feet per year. (Conditions of glaciers are local, however. The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska is advancing.) Mendenhall is a relatively small but highly visible part of the vast 1,500 square miles of glacial activity known as the Juneau Ice Fields.
*Go on a wildlife tour emphasizing humpback whale watching on the Lynn Canal.
Chances are you’ll see a range of wildlife. Foremost are the previously endangered humpbacks, which are feeding furiously during summer on krill, a small shrimp-like food that grows abundantly here in the upwelling, cool, nutrient-rich ocean. The humpbacks put on quite a show, rolling their spiny backs out of the water and then displaying their tails before plunging into deep dives. Some non-breeding males and non-pregnant females remain here all year. The breeders swim out to Hawaii for the winter birthing and mating season.
Besides humpbacks, you are likely to see orcas or killer whales, Dall porpoises, sea lions, eagles, and plenty of waterfowl, such as scooters.
*Walk the historic downtown.
Downtown Juneau is compact but hilly. Good walking maps are free and available locally at your hotel.
Some buildings to see are the Russian Orthodox Church St. Nicholas, the columned Alaska legislature, the Governor’s house, and the original house of Judge Wickersham, a mover and shaker in the early history of Juneau.
There are also two small museums with major resources. The Alaska State Museum features Native People cultures, including many special artifacts that are temporarily given back to tribes for occasional ceremonial use. Displays, especially of the hunting culture, make a traveler aware of the Eskimo, Athabaskan, Aleut, and Tlingit culture. A giant samovar used for tea service is a highlight of the Russian Alaska display. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum emphasizes the gold mining story that began in 1880. Gold discoveries brought Juneau into existence and thrust it into prominence as the logical choice for the state capitol.
In the downtown area along Franklin Street the main shopping occurs.
*Ride the Mount Roberts Tram to the 1800-foot top of the mountain and enjoy views of the Gastineau Channel, the body of water on whose banks Juneau rests.
There are 2.5 miles of hiking trails at the top of the tram, giving you a good sample of the roughly 120 miles of hiking trails in the immediate Juneau area. Juneau residents are proud of their hiking opportunities, emphasizing that the city area has only 45 miles of roads, but far more miles of trails.
At the top of the tram you can savor the view, hike, dine, and shop.
*Visit the Gastineau Fish Hatchery, also called the Macaulay Fish Hatchery. As many as 170 million salmon fry are released from this small hatchery each year. Several years later those that survive, about two percent, return and are harvested for their milt and eggs to replenish the cycle. The hatchery, which exists to enhance the commercial and sport fishing scene around Juneau, began in the 1970s at a time when Alaskan wild salmon were over-fished. Today the wild salmon fishery is flourishing. The site is fascinating to visit, with thousands of salmon “ripening” in concrete pens prior to their harvest for sperm and eggs. A small aquarium shows the range of fish and shellfish flourishing in the local waters.
There are five types of salmon in Alaska waters-the chum or dog, sockeye or red, king or Chinook, silver or coho, and pink or humpy. They run at different times of the summer. The king and sockeye are especially prized for fine dining.
*Enjoy food and drink at the Hangar, a convivial downtown eatery favored by locals. The Hangar gives you a view of the water, glancing at the float planes coming and going, and the cruise ships lingering in the distance.
The Hangar is an historic place. This was the original airport when float planes were the only means of speedy transport. In 1935 the legendary pilot Wiley Post and his financial backer, humorist Will Rogers, stopped here enroute to Fairbanks and Barrow. The two were on a mission to show the practicality of an air mail route. They crashed fatally at Barrow.
At the Hangar you can enjoy the many culinary wonders of Alaska, such as grilled salmon, grilled halibut, king crab, and Dungeness crab. One item never on the menu is “farm raised” salmon, a hot button subject in Alaska, where no farm raising of salmon is allowed.
The beverage of choice would be the locally brewed beer, Alaskan, perhaps starting with their popular Amber and then moving boldly into their award-winning Smoked Porter. The Alaskan Brewing Company’s facility is in Juneau, can be toured, and has its own attractive tasting room.
If you long for a wilderness immersion in wildlife, glaciers, and the vast expansiveness of Alaska, but with the support of a comfortable small cruise ship and the guiding knowledge of a naturalist, you will delight in the opportunities offered out of Juneau.
Small Ship Alaska: If You Go
The main suppliers of small-ship Alaska wilderness cruise trips in the Southeast can be found at http://www.alaskacruises.com.
For Juneau information, contact the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau at http://traveljuneau.com.
For tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Associationn at http://www.travelalaska.com.