It's cruise-ship departure day in Juneau, Alaska, and thousands of tourists --following a day of visiting the Mendenhall Glacier and sipping beer at the Alaska Brewery -- are heading for the wharf district, where a phalanx of floating behemoths are waiting to take them onboard.
At the same time a considerably smaller group of 70 excited passengers (including me) is heading for the more intimately scaled 176-foot-long Wilderness Discoverer operated by Un-Cruise Adventures.
For the next seven days our unhurried itinerary will take us through the picture-perfect landscape of Alaska's Inside Passage, ending in the town of Ketchikan. And because of its smaller size and lower draft, the Wilderness Discoverer can sail into inlets, bays and coves that passengers aboard the massive cruise ship will never see.
We'll spend hours exploring natural wonders such as the towering formations of glaciers, the annual spectacle of salmon versus bears and the awe-inspiring landscape of the Misty Fjords National Monument. And the best part is that many of these close encounters will take place by kayak, aboard pontoon skiffs or by hiking ashore on foot. The weather in Alaska's southern rain forests is unpredictable, however, so having proper gear is essential. The sun may shine (especially in June and July), but don't count on it. They don't call them rain forests and the Misty Fjords for nothing.
Because of their sheer scope, some experiences are all but impossible to convey in words, even in photographs. The glaciers of Alaska offer just such an experience. From the deck of a large cruise ship, these frozen rivers are certainly grand and picturesque. But the perspective is very different when you approach these massive ice floes aboard a skiff, skimming toward them over glistening water dotted with chunks of floating ice, accompanied by the cry of gulls and the gaze of wide-eyed seals.
At this close (though still safe) distance the ice becomes a bastion of aquamarine towers that rise hundreds of feet above the water. The color is an almost unbelievable shade of blue. Then with a crack that resounds like a canon shot, a section will break off (in a process called "calving") and an ice wall the size of a building will collapse into the water, scattering clouds of seabirds and producing waves that, fortunately, the skiffs ride over with ease.
It was after just such a day spent exploring Frederick Sound and the twin Sawyer Glaciers that passengers sat down to dinner in the spacious dining room of the Wilderness Discoverer. But before we had managed to navigate our first bite, the voice of the first mate came over the ship's loudspeaker.
"I realize you've all just sat down to dinner," she said, "but if anyone is interested, we're in the middle of whale soup!" Obviously, dinner could wait.
Moments later everyone was on deck, using binoculars to enjoy the sight of this vast pod or humpback whales. And with the ship's engine barely turning, the only sound was the whistling of the whales as they sprayed water through their blowholes and the slap of their mighty flukes against the water. We followed them for more than hour until the evening light finally faded.
In the days that followed, under gray and dripping skies, we kayaked through the pine-forested solitude of Thomas Bay and hiked to a viewing platform where we witnessed the annual duel for survival between spawning-driven salmon and ferociously hungry bears. This spectacle was also observed by bald eagles hoping to garner a share of the catch.
One attractive aspect of Un-Cruise Adventures is the emphasis the company places on understanding the native culture. During our cruise several guest speakers came on board to discuss Tlingit and Haida history, language, arts and traditions. This new information then came to life when the ship docked in the fishing town of Wrangell, where we were invited to tour the Kiksetti Totem Park and enjoy a performance of song, dance and lavish costumes inside the Chief Shakes Tribal House.
The final high point of the cruise was a day spent sailing and kayaking through one of Alaska's premier attractions -- the Misty Fjords National Monument, where filigreed waterfalls stream down 3,000-foot cliffs into ocean-filled glacial valleys. Moving at a leisurely pace and sometimes getting so near waterfalls we could feel the spray, the Wilderness Explorer wove its way through this Middle Earth-worthy landscape.
Our final port of call was Ketchikan, a town that has been transformed and overwhelmed by the summer tourist feeding frenzy. It was a jolt of reality to see shops touting the wonders of owning tanzanite (a gem not even found in Alaska) after relishing a week of remote and natural splendor.
WHEN YOU GO
Un-Cruise Adventures offers a variety of all-inclusive Alaskan cruises departing between May and September. Each ship offers options in price, accommodations and itinerary. Rates for the seven-night "Inner Reaches Eastern Coves" trip from Juneau to Ketchikan begin at $1,895: Un-Cruise Adventures, 3826 18th Ave., Seattle, WA 98119; 888-862-8881; www.un-cruise.com.
Misty Fjords National Monument is a wilderness area administered by the U.S. Forest Service: 3031 Tongass Ave., Ketchikan, AK 99901; 907-225-2148; www.wilderness.net/nwps/wildview?WID=361
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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