Alaska, the Inside Passage. A Lindblad Expeditions Cruise:
Traveling Alaskas Inside Passage by small ship or- Among the Great Whales.
Alaska! Largest, wildest, and most remote of the 50 United States. Ive long wanted to visit there. Every few years I purchase an updated copy of Mileposts, the mile by mile description of every road in that State. I read it and dream I am driving from my home in California and up along the Alcan highway through Canada to Barrow and the remotest areas reachable by car.
I still dream of doing that, but for Judy and myself our first visit to Alaska was much more comfortable than driving the Alcan, but nonetheless mind bogglingly stunning.
We chose to travel on the Lindblad Expedition ship Sea Lion on an eight day voyage through the famed Alaska Inside Passage.
The Sea Lion, and her sister ship, the Sea Bird, accommodate 62 guests each in 31 outside cabins. 3 decks, 152 ft. long, 99 gross tons, with a draft of 8 ft. Small enough to be personal and to tuck into places inaccessible to the floating cruise ship cities, large enough to have a galley the envy of many landside restaurants. Perfect.
Although we live only 40 minutes away from SFO, we chose to spend Friday night at the airport Sheraton, both to avoid having to awaken morning-adverse relatives to drive us to the airport and to take advantage of the Sheratons low weekly parking fees when combined with a stay. The place looks like it would fall down in an earthquake, but was otherwise comfortable with adequate dining options.
Morning, Saturday July 1st. We catch the hotel Shuttle to SFO. On the shuttle, who should we meet, but Seat 1A! He noticed our FT luggage tags and introduced himself. Our first meeting with a FlyerTalker in the wild . Hopefully well have more time to chat with him in the future.
We attempt to check in and upgrade via the Alaska Airlines kiosk. Since there is no FC availability on this holiday weekend we are bitten by the AS kiosk bug that doesnt allow you to declare checked baggage at the kiosk when FC is not available. No problem since we have SFO-SEA and SEA-JNU on separate tickets and need to have an agent check the baggage through for us anyway.
Boarding passes issued, all on board, we depart early and have a smooth, if coach-class, journey to Juneau.
Our Itinerary in Alaska:
Day 1 Juneau, Alaska/Embark Ship
Day 2 Tracy Arm
Day 3 Petersburg
Day 4 Frederick Sound and Chatham Strait
Day 5 Glacier Bay National Park
Day 6 Point Adolphus and Inian Pass
Day 7 Southeast Alaskas Islands, Bays and Fjords
Day 8 Sitka/Disembark Ship
Lindblad has given us luggage tags, cabin tags, -and- colored ribbons to identify passenger luggage upon arrival in Juneau. Passengers themselves are given nice engraved plastic nametags. Juneau is a small place, but Lindblad had a full compliment on hand to make sure that luggage was collected and swept off to await us in our cabins when we boarded the Sea Lion.
As a side note: On the flight back to SFO we noticed a woman boarding our flight with Lindblad ribbons on her carryon. It turned out that she had been on the trip years before and continued to use the ribbon to identify her luggage. Like the FT luggage tags, we now have another token/icebreaker to help us identify our traveling communities.
While the Sea Lion was being prepped for her voyage (having just arrived that morning from the reverse itinerary) we were transported by motorcoach to the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center just minutes out of town. We had about an hour to regard the lovely Mendenhall before reboarding the motorcoach for a whirlwind tour of the Alaska State Museum .
The Mendenhall is awesome and well worth a visit on its own, but it was to just be a foretaste of what was to come.
All-aboard was called for 11:00 Saturday night and we were bused to the ship at 5:30 for a champagne reception with our fellow explorers and and introduction to the crew.
Monday July 1st Sunrise: 0357 Sunset: 2205
Creamy Mushroom Soup with fresh Tarragon
Organic Breast of Chicken with whole grain mustard sauce
Fresh Wild Alaskan King Salmon with Dill Burre Blanc
(also available for all dinners was New York Steak, Broiled Chicken Breast & Chicken Caesar Salad)
(Ice cream or fruit plates available upon request)
Beringer Chenin Blanc
Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir
Seating is open and informal. At meals we tended to sit about half the time with people we had already met and half the time with new people in groups of four to six. We were a very diverse and professional group. There were many families, several young children (>8) and several couples like ourselves.
From 8:00 pm onward shuttles run every 20 minutes to downtown Juneau and back and we catch one to explore the shopping streets.
As Ive posted in the past, Judy and I grow carnivorous plants. Our collection is much reduced ever since the great watering system failure of 01 but we still have a dozen or so species. While Ive restricted myself to greenhouse cultivated specimens in the past, I had a desire to collect one of Alaskas native sundews . Let me tell you, there isnt anywhere in the tourist section of Juneau where specimen bottles can be purchased. We finally came upon an actual local toy-store that disappointingly had closed an hour earlier. Sadly, there was a perfect bottle in the window. However! The shop owner noticed us peering in the window, switched off the vacuum cleaner and let us in. A most propitious beginning to our week.
We are exhausted by this time, yet still tricked by the late Alaskan sunset into thinking it was day. We catch the shuttle back to the ship to find our beds made up and a chocolate on our pillows (Dagoba 68%!), we place them on the nightstand for later. We snuggle into our single bunks and our eyes finally close. As the clock chimes midnight, Sea Lion slips her mooring and motors off into the gathering darkness. . .
Sunday, July 2, 2006
Sunrise: 0400 Sunset: 2156
High tide: 0640 12.0ft. Low tide: 1222 2.1ft. High tide: 1852 13.1ft
It is 6:30 am. Half an hour before our official wakeup call. The speaker in our cabin crackles quietly to life.
Michele Graves, Expedition leader, softly announces that we are surrounded by Orcas. 7 to 10 resident whales are swimming on all sides of the ship. They have been there since 6:00am. The Lindblad naturalists must have been extremely frustrated watching the whales frolic while their guests slept on obliviously. Ships schedule now broken we were told that pajamas were quite acceptable on deck, meaning "Don't bother to dress, just get yourselves outside"!
Judy and I -did- dress (since, luckily, our cabin was right next to the bow), grabbed cameras, and watched enthralled as these magnificent beasts swam around and under the boat, slapped their tails, chased fish, and generally put on quite a show. We were able to enjoy them for about 45 minutes and then it was time for breakfast.
There were actually two amazing events that heralded our first full day on the water. The second was the Orcas. The first was a brilliant sunshine filled day. I had been hovering over the Juneau weather reports for the previous two months. Rain, clouds, clouds, rain, rain, clouds, cold, rain. . . This was not unexpected, since Southeast Alaska is, after all, a rainforest. Nonetheless our entire trip was blessed with warm, mostly sunny days. Our luck was with us.
7:30am: Breakfast Buffet:
A choice of Yogurts, Hot and Cold Cereals, Fresh Fruits and Fruit Juices, Freshly
Chef's Choice Scrambled Eggs
-- plain, herbed, or w/sun-dried tomatoes (3rd choice varied each day)
Sausage and Bacon.
During the night we had cruised south down Stephens Passage, between Admiralty Island and the mainland. Today we were to spend all day In the Endicott Arm, part of the Tracy Arm - Ford's Terror Wilderness area.
Part of the greater Tongass National Forest, Tracy and Endicott arms are the major features of this region and each is a narrow fjord that penetrates more than 30 miles into the heavily glaciated coastal range.
Early in the morning, Sea Lion crossed the "bar", or terminal moraine left by the glacier at its point of furthest advance. We are now moving deeper into the Arm, past growlers and bergie bits. Growlers are small bits of ice, low in the water, often appearing black. Bergie bits are quite a bit larger, up to several meters high, and are the floating chunks of ice that calve off glaciers and icebergs. 90% of a bergie bit, growler, or iceberg is under water. Sometimes they roll over by themselves. Small craft, like Zodiacs, keep their distance.
On our way to the Dawes Glacier we encounter a pair of humpback whales. In the calm, still air their "blows" hang 25 ft. in the air and we can clearly hear each exhalation. Feeding in this way the whales are never very high in the water and do not make very good photographic subjects (except for the flukes when they dive), but we'll remember the sounds and sights forever.
We stopped at the entrance to "Ford's Terror", a fjord off a fjord where we found a black bear walking along the beach and a couple of mountain goats in the distance. Lindblad trips are voyages of discovery and the Captain and expedition leader modify each day's itinerary to best suit that aim. Each day we will be at a particular location, but what happens during each day is open to change.
One thing that doesn't change on any cruise is the lifeboat drill. Right after breakfast the ships horn sounded a series of blasts and we grabbed our life vests and headed for the lounge. A headcount was taken, instructions were provided on what we would have done if this was an actual emergency, and we were released.
Each passenger has three types of life vests. There were two for each of us hanging in our room. One is big and blocky, designed to hold your head out of the water even if you are unconscious. The second is to wear whenever we are on a Zodiac--it is smaller, lighter, and allows for more mobility. The third self-inflates on contact with water, and is used when kayaking. I will do my best to avoid using any of the vests, since survival time in water at 45 degrees would not be very long.
Today our dalliance with Orcas, humpbacks, goats, and bears causes us to put off lowering the Zodiacs for a closer approach to the glacier until after lunch.
Lunch: Family Style Lunch
Carrot and Ginger Soup
Submarine Sandwiches (Turkey or Pastrami, Vegetarian on Request)
Chocolate Cupcakes (BTW, all the baked goods--bread, desserts, a huge variety of cookies--are fresh every day and extraordinarily good!)
After lunch the Zodiacs are lowered by davit into the water. The complement of Sea Lion guests are split into two and we have an early and late group who will ride to the terminus of the Dawes Glacier and a closeup view of this massive river of ice. Judy and I are in the late group.
Last month the seals pupped on the floating ice packing the Endicott. Dozens of seals watch our Zodiacs glide by and a few slip into the water. Most just watch us with those adorable baby seal faces. These are harbor seals, not fur seals. Harbor seals shed their lanugo, or white baby coat, in-utero in this climate, so they have not been a major target of the fur trade. These particular seals are protected these days.
Dawes is a tidewater glacier, so named because it flows directly into the sea. It is this type of glacier that "calves" so spectacularly, with huge blocks of ice breaking free with an audible "crack" and plunging hundreds of feet into the sea with a reverberating boom and spectacular splash. The Dawes is the height of a 33 story building and half a mile wide at this point.
As the Zodiac drew closer to the Dawes, katabatic wind flowing off the glacier made the air significantly colder. Since this was July, the glacier was calving regularly, every five to ten minutes. We were mesmerized for I don't know how long as this huge river of ice flowed into the sea, broke up, and vanished. Endlessly.
Go see it while you still can.
On the way back, we find that the pack ice has closed behind us. Judy and another guest are dispatched to the bow of the Zodiac with paddles. They pry a passage open in the ice until we reach open water and can run home to the Sea Lion anchored a mile away.
Zodiacs back aboard the Sea Lion, we weigh anchor and leave the Endicott Arm, turn south again down Stephens Passage, and run all night towards Alaska's "Little Norway", Petersburg. We'll arrive there early in the morning.
Dinner is served:
Organic Green Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette (almost everything is organic
and sustainably farmed or fished)
Carved Roast New York Loin with Caramelized Onion Sauce
Fresh Alaskan Halibut with Pablano Mint Beurre Blanc
Gingered Miso Soup
Apple and Blackberry Crisp
Robert Mondavi Pinot Gris
Again beguiled by the endless sunlight we perch on the bow and watch the world
go by until it is long past bedtime. Our beds are made up and a Dagoba chocolate
lies on our pillows, we place them on the nightstand for later.
Monday, July 3, 2006
High tide: 0646 11.5ft.
Low tide: 1301 3.2ft.
High tide: 1918 13.2ft
0700 Wake-up call and morning stretch class. Well, we never actually went to the stretch class, but it was in the video of the trip, so we know people actually were on the aft deck stretching. There is also a treadmill and some other machines back there. Sometimes the children would use them. I never actually saw an adult on one. The aft deck also held lounge chairs and tables and was a popular gathering spot.
Early morning in Ideal Cove. The chain rattles out of its locker as we anchor on the eastern side of Mitkof island. Here we will have breakfast, then Zodiac ashore for a walk on a U.S. Forest Service trail. It is an unusual clear, warm, sunlit day deep in a temperate rainforest.
0730 Breakfast is served.
Chef's Choice Scrambled Eggs
Sausage & Bacon
Lox & Bagels (Unusually excellent lox)
The call for Zodiacs is made and we don our life preservers and head to the back of the ship to board them. Adjacent to the stairs down to the boat deck is a tag board. The tag board contains a clipped tag for each one of us aboard. Whenever one of us leaves the boat, the tag goes with us. When we come back aboard, the clip is returned to the tag board. This way the crew can tell at a glance how many people are on board and how many people are out. When "all aboard" is called, if your tag isn't present the crew goes hunting - checking your cabin first. Given the flexible itinerary it might be several weeks before one of the ships heads this way again! It wouldn't do to leave a paying guest deep in the bear-ridden Alaskan wilderness.
Ideal Cove is a "wet" landing, which means that there is no dock to tie up at. You exit the Zodiac into calf high water and wade ashore. The packing list provided by Lindblad mentions this so we were all prepared with waterproof boots of one sort or another. The hiking trips cross muddy terrain as well. Rather than widen the trail by walking closer to the edges and dryer ground we keep the trail narrow and plow right through the mud. We were luckier than some in this respect, since it wasn't raining, and hadn't been for several days.
Once ashore we were divided into fast, medium, and slow groups. They described the fast group as covering more terrain--it left first. The medium group was for nature buffs and photographers, and the slow group was for everyone else. Each group had a naturalist along to answer all of our questions and point out the flora and fauna of this unique environment. Judy and I sorted ourselves into the medium group and unlimbered cameras. Turns out that we were always tail-end charlie with the other photographers, so we declared ourselves to be slow groupers from that point on.
We tramped about for a few hours admiring the rainforest and identifying plants and birds. The trail was mostly a forest-service-maintained boardwalk. Only eight inches wide in most places, it kept us alert to where we were putting our feet. One thing here struck me as odd--our relationship to bears. Now I know bears are wild animals, and there were bear scat and bear prints -everywhere-. I know it is not a good thing to surprise a bear, or come between a bear and her cubs, but the group made a heck of a lot of racket specifically designed to scare bears away. When the children picked it up it was even more annoying since they warned (or even challenged) imaginary bears at every opportunity. I really wanted to respectfully observe (and photograph) a bear from a few dozen feet away. After all, even if we surprised a bear and it charged I know I could have outrun most of the children. Not a chance with all the racket. Oh, well.
A note about the naturalists: There was always one, often all three, on deck scanning for wildlife and answering any and all questions thrown their way by the group. One of the naturalists was a geologist by trade and passionate about his chosen profession. Judy and I enjoyed his discussions of the geologic history and petrology of southeast Alaska. There is, however, an unexpected advantage to having a geologist on board. Whenever he would collect a sizable group to listen to his description of a particularly interesting rock formation, some large animal would invariably be sighted and everyone would rush off to see it.. I consider him to be responsible for the large number of animals we encountered on this trip.
Soon it was time to return to the Sea Lion for lunch. There is no lack of food on this trip.
1230 Lunch is served.
Family Style Lunch:
Mixed Green Salad
Chili con Carne (Vegetarian chili served on request)
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Peanut Butter Cookies
Having reached the southernmost point of our journey, we upped anchor and motored back up the coast to the Norwegian-founded town of Petersburg.
There is a dock here at which we can tie up. Sea Lion is about the largest ship that can make the passage, so none of the floating casinos ever stop. Most traffic comes and goes by way the the Alaska State Ferry System. Petersburg is a vibrant fishing village as well as a sportsman's paradise. We signed up for a floatplane tour of the Le Conte Glacier while helicopters landed on the Patterson Glacier nearby. Seeing the glacier-carved terrain, mountain goats, and the magnificent glaciers and icefalls themselves from the air added a unique and different perspective on the topography of southeast Alaska.
We shopped bit in Petersberg and bought a lovely Puffin watercolor print, but then had to rush back to the ship for the afternoon walk. Across the Wrangell Narrows from Petersburg there is a trail system on Kupreanof Island. This trail system leads through a muskeg, or peat bog. A peat bog is a high PH (acid), low nutrient environment that supports a unique plant community including Alaska's only pine tree and my beloved sundews, carnivorous plants that catch insects on a sticky leaf and then digest them. Ohhh. I had my plastic collecting bottle. There were the plants. Ah well. I decided that ripping up plants, whatever the intentions, on a nature walk, would not set a good example, so I reluctantly passed them by.
There were signs that wolf and bear had passed this way recently.
It is time to return to the ship. The Zodiacs take us back across the channel. A sea lion swims by with a big salmon in its mouth.
Back on the ship we see our only Sitka Blacktail deer of the trip, down by the dock below a parking lot and residence. Northwestern crows and Bald Eagles fill the air, comfortable with the urban environment of Petersburg.
1830 All aboard
1900 Dinner is served.
Dungeness Crab Dinner
Fresh Steamed Dungeness Crab (wow, really, really fresh!)
BBQ Baby Back Ribs
Vegetarian Risotto (Served on Request)
White Bean and Corn Relish
Blueberry Crumb Cake
While we eat, Sea Lion awakens and we move north through Fredericks Sound and up Chatham Strait, running overnight towards Pavlof Harbor.
Judy and I stand on the bow till late. . .
Our beds are made up and Dagoba chocolates lie on our pillows, we place them
on the nightstand for later.
Happy 4th of July!
Tuesday, July 4, 2006
High tide: 0755 9.5ft.
Low tide: 1354 4.81ft.
High tide: 2012 12.3ft
Sausage & Bacon
Wherever you are on the ship, the throttling back of the engines announces as loudly as the PA that something of interest has been found. Our trip to Pavlof Harbor is postponed as we slow to observe a large group of humpbacks foraging together. One by one they salute us with dripping tails aloft and slip beneath the waves to pursue herring and other small fish. Once underwater we cannot see them. We know roughly which direction they were heading when they dove. We know they typically stay under for 10 or 15 minutes. Where they surface is anyone's guess. We motor to position ourselves where we hope the viewing will be good, but never close enough to disturb the whales. A watch is kept by all and soon a cry announces they are back! They noisily blow for 5 to 10 minutes before once more fluking and going below to search for more food. An average-sized humpback whale will eat 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of plankton, krill, and small schooling fish each day. Humpbacks only eat here in the cold, rich water, during the Alaskan winter. They fast when they migrate south to breed in warmer waters off the coast of Baja.
Humpbacks exhibit a variety of behaviors when they feed. To the delight of all aboard, our whales begin to exhibit the cooperative feeding behavior known as "bubble net feeding". In bubble net feeding, the whales locate a school of fish, then fluke and dive under them together. One or more of the whales will swim in a ring around the prey, blowing a stream of bubbles. They spiral towards the surface, tightening the bubble net and concentrating the frightened prey. On a distinctive warbling signal from the lead whale, they all lunge upwards together, mouths agape and emerge with throats distended with fish. Fleeing herring literally jump out of their mouths.
Whales are a difficult subject for photographers, at least for us. They are low in the water, they stay -under- water for long periods of time. The really photogenic events like breaching and bubble feeding happen explosively, randomly in time and direction, and end abruptly. The beginning of the event is unlikely to be where the camera is pointing, swiveling the camera to catch the action causes motion blur. Very frustrating.
Today, we are blessed with glassy seas, bright sun, many spotters, and whales willing to bubble feed over and over and over. We are also equipped with a hydrophone. With the hydrophone in the water the whales warbling feeding cry gives us critical seconds to prepare for their lunge to the surface. We capture amazing images unlike any we are likely to see again.
Finally it is time for us to leave. The whales continue to bubble feed, but other adventures await.
Buffet Style Lunch
Carved Marinated Flank Steak
(Garden Burgers are available on request)
Freshly Baked Cookies
Just after lunch we approach Pavlof Harbor. As we prepare to drop anchor in the cove a brown bear sow and her two cubs appear on shore. Our shore. The shore we will shortly be standing on in waders, not running shoes. The bears quietly disappear into the forest and we lower the Zodiacs and follow them.
Here at Pavlof there is a salmon spawning stream to hike beside, or kayak up. Zodiac tours took the less physically active along the shore where a Bald Eagle and its nest were seen. We both hiked and kayaked, then rested for the rest of the afternoon preparing for dinner.
Spinach and Endive Salad
with Blue Cheese, Walnuts, & Pear Vinaigrette
Roasted Pork Loin
with Apple & Mango Chutney
Wild Alaskan King Salmon
with Chardonnay Cream Sauce
Stuffed Portabella Mushrooms
After dinner our beds were turned down with chocolates placed on the pillows. These are seriously good chocolates. We put them on the nightstand for later.
Today is the 4th of July. Independence day. Alaskans usually reserve their fireworks for New Years when it is dark enough to shoot them off just about any time you want. Today sunset is at 2202. It might be dark by midnight. The captain arranged for us to be passing the small, remote town of Gustavus about that time. The change of engine pitch awakens me and I peer out the window to see a wilderness 4th in all its glory, about one shell every minute. Few others were on deck to observe. I took a picture then headed back to bed.
Did I mention that the toilets are flushed with fresh seawater? Safely stored in a holding tank afterwards, but it comes fresh right out of the sea each time you flush. Earlier in the trip one of the naturalists had discussed the bioluminescent plankton that lived in these waters. On a dark night the disturbed plankton can be seen to make a wide glowing trail in the wake of the ship, or in a darkened toilet. Hey, it's dark, it is the 4th of July, let's make some fireworks. I go into the tiny toilet, prop up the lid with one knee, push the flush lever with my foot, and try to aim the camera. Magic! The swirling water glows green. Larger copeopods make bright circular streaks before they are washed away. A lovely, private, organic fireworks display! Unfortunately the pictures did not come out. . .
Tomorrow: Glacier Bay.
Glacier Bay - If this is Wednesday, there must be Puffins.
Wednesday, July 5, 2006
High tide: 0931 9.1ft.
Low tide: 1507 5.21ft.
High tide: 2123 12.5ft
We've steamed northward all night towards the famed Glacier Bay, Jewel of the Inside Passage, United Nations World Heritage Site and all-around cool place to visit. With miles of fjords, tidewater glaciers, and the amazing peaks of the St. Elias, Fairweather, and Takhinsha mountains it is awe-inspiring.
0600 The engines throttle back and I wake up and peer out of the window. We've stopped briefly at Bartlett Cove to pick up National Park Ranger David Deyette who will be our interpreter this day. Minutes after leaving the Glacier Bay Lodge dock, near the Beardslee Islands we're joined by a pod of seven killer whales. As if Orcas are not enough, a black bear also appears on the shoreline foraging for food.
0730 Breakfast is served
Chef's Choice Scrambled Eggs
Sausage & Bacon
Croissants (wonderful fresh ones!)
Today almost the entire day will be spent aboard ship. It is 65 miles from where we are to the northernmost reaches of Glacier Bay. Our destination is John Hopkins Inlet. Johns Hopkins only re-opened this month to boat traffic ( motor, kayak, any traffic). It was previously closed for seal pupping season. The Sea Lion is one of the largest ships allowed in anytime, the big cruise ships can't get in. Speaking of cruise ships, we are passed by a couple of them on the way up-bay. We do 12 kts. They do 22 kts. We stop whenever we want to, they have a schedule. BIG things though, especially when seen from water level. As it turns out, one of the ships that passes us is the Island Princess. Aboard her was our very own sadiqhassan. If I had known, I would have waved.
Judy was promised puffins on Wednesday (we have become known to the naturalists as the resident birders). We purchased a puffin print in Petersburg in anticipation of the event. Today is bird day, and we approach South Marble Island (sort of like the Farallones off San Francisco, a seabird rookery and sea lion haul out). Cormorants, common murres, pigeon guillemots, marbled murrelets, black-legged kittywakes, Bonaparte's gulls, and yes, puffins! Finally puffins. Horned and tufted puffins. Puffins fly both in air and underwater and their chubby bodies and wings are designed for both environments. Add in the orange bill and they are clearly the favorite bird of this stop. Many puffins, many puffin photographs.
Moving on we pass Gloomy Knob and find a mountain goat foraging on a sheer cliff. Most unusual for a goat, this one casts an eye in our direction, but otherwise ignores our presence, or perhaps it is just posing to have its picture taken?
1230 Family Style Lunch
Mixed Garden Salad
Lasagna (Vegetarian available on request)
Freshly Baked Bread
We reach the Johns Hopkins Glacier and are treated to more spectacular calving activity. The bay is full of growlers and bergie bits so the Sea Lion moves ahead dead slow, ice groaning on steel as our bow nudges it aside. The floating ice has many seals and extremely cute new pups. It is hard to believe that just 200 years ago the entire bay was filled to a depth of several thousand feet with glacier. The denuded hills testify to this recent spectacular retreat of the ice.
Too soon we must turn back and steam home to the Glacier Bay Lodge where we will return our most obliging Ranger Dave to his post and take some time to walk a forest loop train with the naturalists. Many signs along the trail warn of recent bear activity nearby. We keep an eye out, but no bears are to be seen.
I should take a moment to mention that we have half a dozen children on board the ship. Many families take this cruise and there are several representing three generations aboard. As a rule the children are well behaved and as enchanted with the cruise as the rest of us. Glacier Bay being wide and calm, the captain invites the children (in small groups) to the bridge where they are in turn officially handed control of the helm by the captain (all announced over the PA--"Jake now has the con"). One passenger remarks to me that she hopes it is all play acting, but a glance at the graceful arcs our wake cuts behind us says that, yes, the children are indeed in command of the helm.
1900 Dinner is Served.
Butternut Squash Soup
Braised Breast of Duck with Sun-dried Cherry Compote
Smoked Black Cod with Herb & Caper Vinaigrette
Judy and I stand on the bow till late. . .
Our beds are made up and Dagoba chocolates lie on our pillows, we place them on the nightstand for later.
Icy Strait, Idaho Inlet, and the Inian Islands
Thursday, July 6, 2006
Low tide: 0419 1.0 ft.
High tide: 1040 7.8 ft.
Low tide: 1539 3.8 ft
On a trip full of superlatives, this was to be -the- superlative day. Today is day six of eight days, with day eight being our early departure in Sitka. We have today and tomorrow as the last two full days of the trip. We've seen Orcas and humpback whales. We've seen humpbacks bubble feeding and fluking, We've seen bald eagles, otters, and mountain goats, Sitka deer, harbor seals, Stellar sea lions, puffins and birds too numerous to count. We've seen brown and black bear. We've seen the largest fjord system in the world with tidewater glaciers spectacularly calving into the sea at the end of each. We've kayaked and hiked in the depths of a great temperate rainforest. The weather has been amazing, the food exceptional and our many new friends a joy. Who could hope for more than a quiet cruise, homeward bound, in Alaska's Inside passage?
0700 Wake up call
0730 Breakfast is served.
Chef's Choice Scrambled Eggs
Sausage and Bacon
Lox & Bagels
Overnight we had traveled south from Glacier Bay to Idaho Inlet at the north end of Chichagof Island. Today is the first overcast we've seen since arrival and our naturalists tout it as "authentic" Alaska, and I suppose it is, being a rainforest and all. Still it is only cloudy and cool, not rainy, so I count it another great day.
We awoke to the Sea Lion resting at anchor. Sea otters and sea lions mark the surface of the bay and all is otherwise calm. Hiking and kayaking are both on offer so we do both. Unusually, this time we are over a kelp forest - more familiar to us as at our stomping grounds in Monterey bay. Alaska waters are colder than California's, so things grow slower, and larger, then we are used to at home. Harmless Moon jellies and stinging Lion's Mane jellies pulse beneath the water. The largest Lion's mane jelly ever recorded had a bell 7 ft. across and tentacles 120 ft. long. Ours are much smaller than that but impressive nonetheless. Metridium anemones and colorful starfish cling to rocks beneath our kayak. The white heads of bald eagles make them easy to spot as they perch in the surrounding spruce forest.
Tiring of the kayak, we beach it with the others and join our naturalists for a brief shore hike along a bear trail. Bear trails are interesting in that each following bear, days or weeks later, steps in the footprints of the bear that went before. Here we find dozens of footprints in line, each many inches deep - a testament that this is -not- the best place to erect a tent, should we desire to spend the night ashore. To further reinforce that lesson we encounter spruce trees with deep scratch marks high on their trunks. In the running sap is embedded bits of dark fur. Perhaps we should encourage the children to do more of their bear warning calls.
The Zodiacs come to collect us for lunch too soon. We leave the kayaks on shore to be collected and stowed by our tireless crew and go below for lunch. It has been a quiet, contemplative morning.
Buffet Style Lunch
New England Clam Chowder
Build Your Own Chef Salad
Freshly Baked Bread
Our itinerary calls for us to spend the rest of the day on the Sea Lion, cruising about to see what might be seen. As we pass the Inian Islands, a spur-of-the-moment decision is made to lower the Zodiacs for a more personal visit to the area. One of the joys of a small boat cruise is indulging our whims. The Inian Islands sit at the juncture of Icy Strait and Cross Sound. We're near the Gulf of Alaska at this point in our travels, and twice each day water from the open Gulf swirls around these islands as it floods the Inside Passage.
With it, the water brings salmon, and predators await. Bald eagles, sea lions, and otters feed actively here, clouds of sea birds dine on the spoils.
As a photographer, proper choice of a lens makes all the difference in determining what you can capture. I don't find it practical to bring multiple lenses on the Zodiacs, since it can be a bit wet and the insides of the cameras are delicate things. I cringe to think what salt water would do to the CCD heart of the system. So, Judy and I cast bones for inspiration and make our choices. Judy takes the 70-200mm zoom and I take the 400mm telephoto. Both long lenses have served us well for nature photography in Alaska up until now, but today luck is against us, or wildly for us, I'm still not sure which.
Our two Zodiacs approach the Inians and roving bands of Stellar sea lions come to greet us. They have no fear of the boats and seem to think we have brought them great inflatable toys. I lost track of time, but it must have been for more than an hour that dozens of these huge animals played around us, usually near enough to touch (if you wanted to risk a finger). Looking amazingly like immense dogs, they watched us watching them, swam under and around the Zodiacs, and leapt completely clear of the water again, and again, and again. We took countless photographs, but the disappointment and the joy was that these animals were simply -too close- to make for great pictures. Actually Judy did get some great shots, but we needed the wide angle more than my telephoto. Our 'lion friends still wanted to play, but we had to return to the ship and continue south towards Sitka. On our way back to the Sea Lion we circled the Inians and observed many immature eagles perching in the trees on shore.
Back aboard our ship we raise anchor and head east, back through Icy Strait.
Dinner is Served
Avocado and Crab Salad
Roasted Rack of Lamb
with Rosemary, Garlic, Red Wine Sauce
with citrus Beurre blanc
After dinner, north of Pt. Adolphus, our Chief Mate spots a pod of humpback whales diving together. We all gather on deck and realize that there are whales everywhere! Spouts can be seen for what seems like miles across the water and we hardly know where to turn next. The engines are idled and we watch as whales blow and fluke around us. Suddenly, trumping our earlier pack of frolicking sea lions, a young humpback whale launches itself completely out of the sea. Streaming water, it hangs for a majestic instant in mid-air, then falls back with a tremendous splash. The thunder of its landing is drowned out by the audible gasps of all on board. Seemingly pleased with itself, it leaps out of the sea again and again. It alternates between leaping, raising its tail high in the air to loudly slap the sea surface, and lolling on its back with 15 ft. long pectoral fins waving high in the air. All the while we can hear it calling. Long wavering whale cries reach us across the mere hundred yards or so that separate us. Quite the mystical experience. We stood on deck watching that whale until dusk began to overtake us and we had to sail on. As the Sea Lion slowly moves off we can see other young whales beginning to breach across the channel, dancing together in some ancient rite we do not comprehend.
It is time for sleep, our beds are made up and Dagoba chocolates lie on our pillows; we place them on the nightstand for later.
Lake Eva and Peril Strait
Friday, July 7, 2006
Low tide: 0504 1.2 ft.
High tide: 1127 9.9 ft.
Low tide: 16549 5.4 ft
Today is our last full day on board the Sea Lion. After a week aboard, the ship is home and we will miss her when we have to depart. Cabin 201 is small, with two single beds, a closet mostly full of life preservers, three drawers for personal belongings, a fair amount of under-bed storage space, a small window, a tiny bathroom with a "telephone" shower and a sink with just enough room for the necessaries. You can't quite swing a cat in here, but it is cozy. 201 is the forward port cabin on the main deck, steps from the bow observation area. We've grown so fond of our cabin that we've reserved cabin 201 on the Sea Lion's twin sister, the Sea Bird, when we cruise for whales in the Sea of Cortez next year.
0700 Wakeup call
We sail into Sitkoh Bay early in the morning and shortly thereafter the drop in engine RPM brings us all expectantly outside. It's Brown Bear Bonanza! There are seven of them foraging along the shore. Characteristically bears are rather shy and most of our encounters are via binoculars or long range camera lens. These are no exception, but it's a good clear view, and we let the engines idle as we watch them. It's a beautiful morning to watch these beautiful animals.
0730 Breakfast Buffet
A Choice of Yogurts, Hot and Cold Cereals, Fresh Fruits and Fruit Juices, Freshly
Hash Brown Potatoes
Sausage & Bacon
After breakfast we anchor in Hanus Bay and Zodiac ashore to hike through an old-growth Sitka Spruce forest next to a fast flowing stream. Along the way we find fresh bear scat and tracks. We pause for awhile to decipher the puzzle of the tracks and determine where the bear had been and where it was going. A hint for those keen to rush out and track bears: When a bear moves quickly it "overstrides", like a galloping horse, and the rear foot tracks are placed ahead of the front foot tracks. This confuses the track, but in the end we're satisfied that we understand a few minutes in the life of this particular bear.
We forge on and find a deep place in the stream where we can see a school of large salmon resting before they continue upstream to spawn. The pool is thick with them. A couple of the crew are there before us and are flycasting right in front of the uninterested fish. Among the salmon are a handful of dolly varden and cutthroat trout.
The "fast" hikers are returning and pass us on the trail, so we call it a morning and head back ourselves. It is quiet out here, and cool. I can understand why some people spend their whole lives out here.
Back at the beach we claim our kayak (the only purple one on the ship) and paddle up the stream we have just hiked along. Reaching the waterfall just below the pool where the salmon rested we can appreciate the obstacles these fish overcome in order to fulfill their destiny.
Green Bean Salad
Pizzas (Meat, cheese, Veggie, Goat cheese/Sun-dried tomato/Pesto)
There are about 90 people, passengers and crew, aboard the Sea Lion, and they all need to be fed. The chef, sous chef, pastry chef and helpers are busy from dawn to dark preparing our meals (and shopping while we are docked). We've been at sea for several days now, and the larder is getting thin. Despite that, the food has been excellent the entire voyage and the cooks will outdo themselves for the Captain's farewell dinner tonight.
During a moment of relative afternoon calm in the kitchen, Judy and I ask for, and are given, a tour. The sous chef was very proud of their operation, with good reason. In a relatively tiny space, and with limited storage, they not only manage to feed all of the passengers and crew huge quantities of fabulous, fresh, and varied food, it is also almost entirely organic and sustainable and otherwise socially responsible. Lindblad's executive chef gets all of the cooking staff together for a 2-week retreat in Napa every year, and they are up-to-date with all the latest in the food world. Did I mention they do all the baking fresh every day? Breads as well as cookies and desserts, and it's all absolutely top quality. They bring on fresh seafood whenever we put into port, and the crab especially is the best we have ever tasted.
While lunch is served the anchor is raised and we head towards our final destination: Sitka. We will spend the night aboard the Sea Lion, but in a cove near enough Sitka to provide for an early morning arrival. This will not only give the guests time to meet their onward travel requirements, but let the crew clean and restock the Sea Lion for its return journey to Juneau.
Our journey towards Sitka is a pleasant cruise with more bears, Dahl's porpoise, and otter sighted. The afternoon excitement is a transit of the Sergious Narrows, one of the narrowest navigable channels in the Inside Passage. The tide is in full flood and the marker buoys are almost pulled under from the force of the water. The Sea Lion makes about 12 knots but the current is five and a half against us. For half an hour the shore barely moves behind us as the tidal eddies swirl on either side. Finally we break through and make good time towards Sitka.
We while away the afternoon napping, chatting with friends, and keeping an eye out for wildlife. At 1600 Gretchen Pederson, one of the naturalists, gives a presentation on Alaskan art. Too much to describe here, it is fascinating, and we feel that it really increases our appreciation.
1900 Captains Farewell Dinner
Roasted Rib-eye of Beef with Glazed Shallots Red Wine Sauce
Dungeness Crab Cakes with Chipotle Remoulade
Penne Pasta Puttanesca
Dark & White Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Coulis
After dinner the working crew is introduced and received with much appreciation by the guests. It has been largely the efforts of these people behind the scenes that have made this trip the pleasure it has been. Lindblad, their management and crew deserve high praise for their operation. Well done.
It is time for sleep, our beds are made up and Dagoba chocolates lie on our
pillows; we place them on the nightstand for later.
Saturday, July 8, 2006
Low tide: 05464 -0.7 ft.
High tide: 1228 6.9 ft.
Sitka - Alaska's original capital city. Early in the morning we have pulled into the harbor and docked quite close to downtown.
We've been asked to place our baggage outside the cabin door before breakfast. Another group of guests is coming aboard later this afternoon and the ship has to be turned before their arrival. Most of our stuff had been packed since yesterday evening, so finishing the final details was quickly done.
0700 Wake-up call and "Breakfast 4 fishermen" or to say it otherwise
0730 Breakfast is served and fishermen disembark.
Back in the room we find our checked baggage has been swept away and only our carry-ons remain.
As I was putting the toiletries in my carry-on, I look to the nightstand for our stash of Dagoba chocolates. Not there. Perhaps Judy has them? No. The Dagoba chocolates are gone! I look through my pack, Judy looks through hers. We check the drawers. No chocolates. Judy is quite miffed - after all, we've been saving them for a week. We've left expensive optics on the bed with the door open, and indeed all over ship without a qualm, but someone has taken our chocolates!
Judy goes downstairs to check with the housekeeping staff and triumphantly returns with our hoarded chocolate bars! The staff had seen the pile we had carefully put aside, determined that we didn't want them, and returned them to stores. Chocolate secured, we prepare to disembark.
0830 General disembarkation for morning tour of Sitka.
Farewell M/V Sea Lion. You have been a Good Ship.
We board buses for our final tour of Sitka before the early afternoon onward Alaska Air flights. Some of us are going on to Denali, others heading home. Judy and I are staying in Sitka for another day before we leave. First stop on the tour is the Cathedral of St. Michael.
The cathedral is a remarkable onion-domed confection, dark, smoky, and quiet inside. A gracious monk welcomes us inside the 158 year old building and we gaze for awhile at the art and icons.
Next stop is the Alaska Raptor Center where between one and two hundred injured Bald Eagles and other birds are treated each year. Most are released back into the wild, but a few are so badly damaged that they join the Raptors-in Residence program for visitors and school children. Two of these magnificent birds are brought out to see us as part of the tour. For the first we are asked to keep quiet and still as the eagle is new to the center. The second proudly poses for photographs, undisturbed by the flurry of photographs, even flashes. Alaska is an eagle-photographer's dream, with the birds flying and perching everywhere. At one time we counted 13 eagles circling over the town center. Lots of ravens, too. One thing puzzles me though - we didn't see one single pigeon while we were there.
Unlike the Cathedral of St. Michael, the raptor center has a gift shop. Judy buys a stuffed puffin. Not a raptor, but a bird, at least.
Last stop before the airport is the Sitka National Historical Park . The museum contains many artifacts of early Alaska, but perhaps the most impressive are the Tlingit ethnographic items - totem poles being the most impressive and, thanks to our lecture the previous night, the most interesting to interpret. Inside the museum a local carver was working on a pole for a local event. Despite being on a deadline he took the time to answer all of our question about his work.
Too quickly we need to board the bus to the airport. Our bags have already been delivered to a local B&B but we need to pick up our rental car at the airport. Hertz Gold service not being available, I had called earlier to reserve a car from Northstar Car Rental. The proprietor was kind enough to ask me if I understood that Sitka had only 14 miles of road before he booked the reservation for us. Of course I made sure the car came with unlimited milage. Notwithstanding the 14 miles of road we managed to put over 150 miles on the car in a day and a half of travel. Before they put a stop to it, some of the locals would put in several hundred miles A DAY moving stuff from one place to another, and just joyriding. While I'm sorry we didn't set a record I do think we got our use out of Sitka's transit infrastructure Duly noting the sign that read "A cleaning fee may be charged due to fish smell or having animals in the trunk" we collected our keys and headed off in search of our B&B.
We are staying two nights at the Eddystone Inn , but when we arrive, no one is to be seen. We go off for lunch and return, but still the Inn is empty. Poking around, we find a room with our luggage and decide to move in. It was the right decision, but it still felt odd not to be met. It turned out that the proprietor had gone off with a friend in his boat to do some photography. On the way out the engine had quit and when they turned around to see what was wrong, there was no engine in the boat! Someone had forgotten to tighten the tie-down and it had jumped off at the top of a swell. It took some time to get back to shore on the trolling motor alone. Oh, to live in rugged, carefree Alaska.
We already have reservations for dinner -- have had them for months, in fact. Research on the Alaska forum had determined that the best restaurant in Sitka was Ludwig's, which is not open on Sunday, so tonight was our only chance to go there. Ludwig's is not German -- it's named after a dog -- but Mediterranean. When we get there at 7 it turns out to be a very good thing we had reserved, as it is very small, and almost entirely filled with Goettingers -- the big family from the boat! We get the very last table. We both order the salmon special, which has a fascinating and unusual sauce and is just astonishingly good. They were right, it is certainly the best restaurant in Sitka -- it would, in fact, be the best restaurant in a much larger town with much stiffer competition.. If you go there, be sure to make reservations well in advance...
We drive around a bit more, then return to the Eddystone for the night.
We split a Dagoba chocolate and call it a day.