CRUISING ALASKA’S PANHANDLE
by Jim Cogan
Don’t worry if we don’t make the landing on the first attempt,” our Alaska Airlines pilot deadpanned. “We’ll just swing back around and try from the other side.” When we finally landed safely in blustery 50-plus-mile-an-hour winds and torrential rain, no doubt more than a few of us wondered why we had come to Ketchikan, Alaska, to embark on a weeklong cruise through the famed Inside Passage of Alaska’s panhandle.
But much to our relief, the next day dawned clear. As we boarded the Sundance, the beautifully-converted 70-foot fishing vessel which was to be our home for the next week, my wife and I were warmly welcomed by the captain and crew. “Crew” actually turned out to be the wrong word. They immediately began to feel like an extended family, consisting of burly and gregarious Captain Will, his warm and ebullient wife Melanie, and his son and son-in-law. Captain Will, having piloted and/or maintained everything from 12-foot skiffs to ferries to oil tankers, immediately inspired complete confidence. We always felt welcome in the captain’s perch, either for the topside view or just a chat.
The ship itself had been lovingly and artistically retrofitted with a half-dozen cozy passenger cabins, full-size showers, and even a cedar sauna. Melanie’s background in both art and fishing was immediately evident in all the boat’s small touches, from oil paintings on the walls to whale’s-tail mosaics in the showers. Its huge galley, complete with Bosch appliances, was so comfortable, and Melanie such a fantastic cook, that it immediately became a favorite gathering place. Morning, noon and night, savory smells wafted from fore to aft. Each meal was almost shocking in its tastiness.
Heading north out of Ketchikan, we first stopped at a small artists’ colony, formerly a fishing village, named Meyer’s Chuck. There we checked out some local wood-carving and quilting, as well as sampling local huckleberries, thimble berries, blueberries, cloudberries, and huge, plump Alaskan salmon berries.
Off the Beaten Path
One of the great benefits of this tour, because of its small number of guests, was its flexibility. After pulling to shore on the small skiff, some of us hiked upstream, others kayaked, and my wife and I went salmon fishing. I pulled up some rock fish and we set traps for crab and shrimp, which Melanie would turn into the tastiest, most buttery steamed shrimp and homemade crab cakes any of us had ever tasted.
The next morning, a few of us chose to explore the still-authentic fishing town of Petersburg, while my wife and I joined the indefatigable Zack for a hike. To get to the isolated trailhead, we first had to take the small skiff to shore. Upon returning from our woodsy trek, we discovered that our small speedboat, which Zack had taken great pains to anchor in the deepest water available — it was 15 feet deep at the time — was now sitting high and dry on the rocks. Luckily, Zack’s radio successfully reached the Sundance, and within an anxious hour they would return to ferry us from the darkening shore.
A Primordial Paradise
The next morning, as we paddled along the shore in single and double kayaks, bald eagles teased us to locate them from the tall, dark trees above. Southeast Alaska has the world’s densest population of these striking birds, whose wingspans top out at well over eight feet.
The natural landscape, visible for many miles in all directions, was pure, unspoiled magnificence. There was not a single manmade object, other than our own kayaks, to be seen. When we were wise enough to be silent, we could hear countless repetitions of the eerie, breathy sounds of whales spouting, ejecting water through their blowholes. This morning, one whale fully breached the surface a few hundred feet from the boat, all but the tip of its tail clearing the water.
Glaciers of Every Hue
Southeast Alaska awes and humbles you with its inconceivable vastness, while at the same time captivating you with the beauty of nature’s myriad exquisite details. As we passengers hibernated in our cozy yet comfortable cabins, Captain Will expertly guided the boat northward, and we awoke in the midst of glacier country.
Far from white as one might imagine, these glaciers range in color from almost translucent to literally as black as dirt, seemingly including every shade of blue and green in between. As we headed up this fjord-like bay, chunks of ice the size of a house or larger would noisily calf into the ocean. Cascades and waterfalls dropped on both sides from huge, Yosemite-size rock walls, which were themselves a palette of color ranging from off-white to black, with lots of iron-induced reds and browns.
As we headed toward the glacier, we huddled together on deck, awed by this northern splendor. At one point, Captain Will nosed the ship right up to a particularly impressive ice sculpture rising 30 feet above the water.
As our journey continued, we found ourselves in a huge open bay, able to see 100 miles. Suddenly, from nowhere, misty lines of water appeared in all directions, rising 20, even 50 feet above the water’s surface. Whales ahoy!
Their spouting exhalations sounded like a cross between a lion’s roar and a loud, long snort from a horse. Huge black mounds appeared in the water, followed by the sight of massive forked tales as the whales dove deep below. In no time we were surrounded by these massive yet incredibly graceful creatures performing their water ballet before us.
At this point some of us headed off in the motorboat, others in kayaks. Within but a few minutes, we were all treated to the unforgettable experience of whales surfacing frighteningly closely to our boats. One slip of their tails and our little kayaks would be history — but this was not about to happen. They were more curious than dangerous, and their visits were absolutely exhilarating.
When the sun began to set, and we converged from all directions back to the Sundance, we shared tales of an afternoon none of us will ever forget.
The next day we anchored at the end of a long, fjord-like valley. Bald eagles were too numerous to count, and with binoculars we spotted a grizzly and her two black cubs in the distance. Wisely, we left them alone.
About four of us headed off in the small skiff back up the valley, and we stopped quickly when Melanie spotted movement in berry bushes on the shore. Much to our delight, it was a large female grizzly munching her way up the hillside, totally hidden but only about 20 feet away. It snorted as it ate, in apparent gustatory delight. Feeling safe because of the deep water between us and the bear, we allowed the boat to float, and within a few minutes the grizzly emerged to face us head-on. Within a sniff it knew we were of no importance, and went on munching as we clicked our cameras wildly. It was about as close as we could ever safely get to a grizzly, and we were thrilled at this rare opportunity.
After lunch we stopped at Baranof Bay, at the end of still another stunning inlet. Perfect weather had us all off the main boat and into the kayaks or on hikes. The afternoon’s highlight was a set of absolutely gorgeous hot springs, as beautiful as any of us had ever seen. Under towering conifers, and directly beside a swollen, roaring creek too big and rough to put even a toe in, lay a couple of sulphury pools contained by local stones. The 15-minute hike to get there was repeated the next morning around 6 a.m., with the added benefit that morning of having the pools utterly to ourselves.
As we soaked in the pools next to the rushing stream, we were greeted by a bald eagle soaring only about 20 feet directly overhead — an awesome sight. Returning to the main boat, we watched whales spout in the distance as we gorged ourselves on muffins with fresh local crab.
Losing ourselves in Alaska’s vastness, enjoying the fishing, kayaking, hiking, whale-watching, hot springs ... before we knew it, the week was over. We motored into Sitka on a perfect Alaska summer morning, snow-laden peaks glistening in the sun.
It was an unforgettable week. We left sated and relaxed, overjoyed to have taken part in this Alaska Exploration Cruise.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, including cruise descriptions and schedules, contact Alaska Exploration Cruises, www.alaskaexplorationcruises.com; 360-588-2261; or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ALASKA TRAVEL TIPS
• Travel to Alaska. You can get great flight connections into Vancouver from any major U.S. city and then on into Alaska’s Panhandle. Remember that if you decide to use the Alaska State Ferry system, officially called the Alaska Marine Highway, plan early, as advance reservations are recommended. Destinations and schedules are very detailed — check out the Alaska State Ferry home page on-line.
• Totem Poles. In Ketchikan, visit the Totem Heritage Center and Totem Bight State Historical Site, which gives the visitor the bonus of breathtaking coastline and rainforest overlooks. The Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka is also well worth a visit. All three sites display rare and restored totem poles giving insight into the customs and heritage of the native Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida people.
• What to wear. Summer days are usually quite temperate (60s is typical), but it can get chilly. Bring a warm, preferably waterproof jacket or coat. Otherwise bring extra rain gear.::