I couldn’t imagine myself seeing Alaska from a huge cruise ship. But by shopping a bit, I found a perfect way to savor our wildest state.
Alaskan Dream Cruises, owned by Alaskans, has four ships that carry 40 to 90 passengers. They ply slightly different routes between Sitka and Ketchikan on 9- to 11-day tours.
I was on the Alaskan Dream, a catamaran with a wrap-around, first-deck lounge that has the same view as the third-deck captain’s bridge. It only requires water 6 feet deep. Big cruise ships couldn’t navigate the places we poked around in or the villages we visited.
Captain Eric, somewhere around 50, and most of his crew of 16, have served together several years. He has an English degree, but decided he was better suited for the vagabond life of sailing in Alaska in the summer and points south in the winter.
Before leaving Sitka, he announced we would have an itinerary that would change whenever there was something interesting to see. That didn’t take long. The first morning we were watching humpback whales rising and blowing in front of the boat. All of a sudden we saw what looked like a torrent of bubbles spraying out of the water. The whales were bubble-net feeding.
Bubble-net feeding is a cooperative behavior learned by ordinarily solitary humpbacks. They cruise around and under schools of fish, like herring, and blow air bubbles underwater. Gradually moving toward the surface and closer together, the bubbles become a torrent that disorients the fish. On signal, they move in and gorge themselves on up to 15,000 gallons of water and fish. The fish are filtered out and water is disgorged.
It was quite a spectacle watching humpbacks’ snouts rising around what appeared to be a spring of air bubbles.
That evening we were sipping wine in the lounge when Eric announced there were killer whales off the right side of the boat. For almost half an hour orcas and porpoises put on a show of rising and leaping, alone and in groups of two or three.
The next day, at Glacier Bay National Park Headquarter in Bartlett Cove, we saw an articulated humpback whale skeleton. Killed by a cruise ship in 2001, a 45-foot female washed ashore.
Our most interesting observations of Alaska’s wildness came on a 35-mile cruise up the Endicott Arm fiord to the Dawes Glacier. The fiord is a mile and a half wide. Its cliffs tower equally high. We saw puffins, a brown bear with cubs, and a harbor seal with newborn pup on an ice flow.
It seemed we could practically touch the glacier. It stands 250 feet above the water and is three quarters of a mile wide. From a distance, what appear as tire tracks on the surface are chunks of rock the ice ground from the walls of the two glaciers that merged to form it.
For most of the tour we had Charley, a member of the Huna tribe of the Tlingit native culture as our cultural interpreter. The three native Alaskan cultures, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, contain tribes that function like extended families.
In the evenings, Charley told native stories, sang native songs and demonstrated drumming. For several days a Glacier National Park ranger was our naturalist.
We had local guides in all six communities we visited. Kasaan, population 28, is a village of artisan wood carvers. We hiked two-thirds of a mile on a winding rain-forest trail, past 20- to 30-foot, free-standing totem poles, to visit and hear an explanation of Haida Cultural Chief-I-Hat’s longhouse. Built in 1887, it is the only remaining traditional Haida longhouse in the United States.
Thorne Bay’s story is an example of unintended consequences. It’s population of 500 is a third of its peak in the 1960s and ’70s. It began as one of 15 floating logging camps built to exploit the area’s forests and export pulp.
Floating logging camps were built atop spruce logs lashed together, planked over, and held in place by huge anchors. After an area was clear-cut, the anchor was pulled and the camp towed to a new one. Thorne Bay’s camp was towed 45 miles by sea to its current location, and became the largest North American logging camp.
But clear-cutting and pulp exportation became unprofitable. The frontier-lifestyle logging camp population disappeared. A modern community of families developed with stores, churches, schools and a library.
By Alaska Air, the Sitka-Ketchikan trip took 20 minutes. On the Alaskan Dream it took more than nine days to travel 700 miles and accumulate a lifetime of memories of cultural pauses and scenic turnoffs.