Touching Alaska

On the big ships, you get a good look at the state’s magnificent wilderness. On a small ship, you step into it.

People hiking through Glacier Bay

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When you’re in grizzly country, it’s a good idea to give the hosts a heads-up when paying a visit. Don’t want any awkward moments. So, after our two eight-person skiffs make land, before we even get to the woods, our guides are already shouting “Whoop-whoop!” I join in with “Hey, bears!” feeling the need to make the callout a bit less threatening. After all, it is their territory.

Bushwhacking (rugged hiking without a trail through mud and dense undergrowth, as we’re doing now) is one of several options for passengers on an UnCruise Adventure. There are also plenty of moderate activities, such as kayaking, paddle-boarding, and touring the coastline in small crafts. UnCruise, with its fleet of small (76- to 90-passenger) ships, prides itself on being an alternative to the mega-cruisers that ply the waters of Southeast Alaska. On the big ships, you get an overview of the state’s magnificent wilderness. On the UnCruise, you step into it.

Our voyage began in Sitka, on remote Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska, and would conclude in Juneau. Partly to acclimate to the time zone and partly just to spend a little time on dry land before shipping out, my wife Estelle and I hunkered down on Sitka four days prior to our departure. That’s highly recommended, since Sitka, in its own way, gives you a feel for the remoteness and beauty of Alaska (see sidebar, page 56).

Grizzly bear crosses a shallow stream.
Bear witness: A grizzly patrols the shoreline. (Uncruise)

Thanks to all the shouting, we seem to be alone on the shore, but signs of animal activity abound. We stop to study tracks left by deer, wolves, bears. “Still warm!” says our guide excitedly as she hovers her hand inches above some bear scat.

At first it seems impossible to find a way into the woods from the beach thanks to the thick undergrowth at the forest’s edge. But after several false starts, slogging through mud in our knee-high rubber boots, we find a suitable opening, punching through alder and gently pushing aside thorny devil’s club. This leads us first into a cathedral-like conifer forest of Sitka spruce, mountain hemlock, and yellow cedar. There are mosses and lichens underfoot, and thickets of ­blueberry.

We press on. Suddenly a small, black, cat-like creature pops up in front of us. It’s a marten (of the weasel family). It’s not clear who’s more startled, us or the marten. It freezes, does a double take, then zing! Off it darts, disappearing into the undergrowth.

I wonder if we might surprise a bear in the same way — wishing (just a little) that we will. As the joke goes, you don’t have to run fast if you come across a bear in the wild. Just faster than the next person.

Deeper we go into the dark forest, climbing over fallen logs, pulling ourselves up steep embankments using tree branches for support, when suddenly we come to a large clearing of dense grasses and wildflowers. This, expedition guide Bobby DeMarinis explains, is a muskeg marsh, which forms in low flat areas with poor water drainage. “The water collects and saturates the soil,” he says. “Then oxygen levels decrease in the soil, which also becomes very acidic as needles from conifer trees decompose.”

Spruces and hemlocks tend to die off in these areas, and the result is what looks like a meadow in the middle of the woods. But it’s not like any meadow you’ve ever known. The ground is spongy, the grass thick and deep. DeMarinis identifies the wildflowers as we walk among them — labrador tea, round leaf sundew (a small, delicate flycatcher), shooting stars (featuring beautiful backward-facing petals), and more.

A humpback whale jumps out of the water.
Making a splash: A humpback whale dances on the water. The ship frequently stops or changes course for animal sightings. (Uncruise)

Our ship spends much of each day at anchor. In the evening and at night, it moves along, the gentle rocking ensuring good sleep. Late one afternoon, Estelle and I push off in a kayak from the portable dock lashed to the back of the ship. We paddle softly through placid black water, bald eagles soaring above us, mountains in the distance. For a while, we stop in the middle of the bay, listening to the wind, the birdsong. Suddenly a harbor seal pops up alongside, giving us the once over. Just as suddenly, it disappears.

Between the day’s many options for activities, there are lectures on wildlife, on Alaskan history, on early explorers to the region. But the schedule frequently changes and the ship will stop or change course for sightings of humpback whales, killer whales, seals sunbathing on rocky outcroppings, wild goats, and birds of all kinds. It’s all very freewheeling, and one becomes accustomed to changes in plans.

One morning as we drop anchor, a bear is spotted in the high grasses along the shore. Everyone reaches for binoculars, but a few minutes later, the decision is made to pull up anchor and find a different landing point — too dangerous to land near a bear patrolling its territory. All the day’s planned activities are pushed back as we find another anchorage about an hour away.

That flexibility is typical of the UnCruise experience. As Tim Voss, the captain of our ship, the SS Legacy,
explains, “We may not cover a lot of ground, but we take our time and focus on the wilderness and on shore. We’ll stop to study a plant or an animal on the beach. It’s what we do, and we’re passionate about allowing passengers to really feel the places they visit.  We want them to say, ‘I came to Alaska but I actually put my boots in the mud. I smelled the forest and walked in it.’”

Polar Plunge off the back of the SS Legacy and Sea Dragon in Alaska.
Thrills and chills: Passengers work up their nerve for “polar plunge” into 40-degree water. (Uncruise)

Several days in, while sailing through Glacier Bay, the highlight of many Alaskan cruises, we anchor near the majestic Margerie Glacier. There, not more than 100 yards from the ice, some of us participate in “the polar plunge,” a dive off the aft deck into 40-­degree water, followed in my case by an extremely fast exit.

Later in the day, a small group debarks for a hike up a steep rocky outcropping alongside the glacier. From our vantage point, sitting on rocks amid lovely blue and white wildflowers, we spot a pod of three killer whales — two parents and a juvenile — on the hunt. Soon, a large cruise ship pulls into the bay and circles past the glacier. As it departs, we wave at the crowds lining the deck high above the water, capturing the stunning vistas on their phones and video cameras. And we feel privileged that for a short while we’ve been more than just observers of Alaska’s wildest and most beautiful places ­— we’ve actually touched and experienced them.

If you go: The per-person cost for a one-week UnCruise Adventure ranges from $3,000 to about $7,500. The fee includes delicious food and beverages, including alcohol. (Cocktail hour is a pleasant respite after a day of outdoor activities.) Discounts are available on some trips booked by mid-December. Two other excellent small-ship options with similar amenities and routes are Alaskan Dream Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions.

 

Steven Slon is the Post’s editorial director.

Beautiful, Remote Sitka

The St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka
The St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka. (Shutterstock)

Our Delta airliner curls around the Tongass Mountains and plunges sharply into tiny Sitka Airport – ranked as one of the top 10 scariest in the U.S. The landing is smooth, and sighs are audible as dozens of fingers unclench armrests.

Sitka is a lovely little town with a deep history. The native Tlingit settled here 10,000 years ago. The Russians arrived in 1799 to establish a colonial trading company. In 1867, the U.S. bought Alaska from cash-strapped Russia (for about two cents per acre), but some Russians stayed. Today, there’s an interesting mélange of cultures, including North Americans fleeing big-city life, a Filipino community that first came to work in the canneries, and the indigenous Tlingit. Through it all, the Russian influence persists, says Sherry Aitken, Sitka’s Director of Tourism. Indeed, the major landmark in the center of town is St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, built in 1848.

The town’s economy is based largely on commercial and sport fishing as well as tourism. Being just a bit out of the way of the standard Alaskan cruise-line routes, Sitka mainly caters to the smaller cruise ships and manages to maintain its identity with 200,000 visitors per year. “We don’t want to get overwhelmed,” says Aitken.  (By comparison, Skagway, a smaller town, gets a million visitors per year ­— and on days when two enormous ships dock there, Skagway feels like a giant Alaska-themed shopping mall.) 

A pleasant stroll up Lincoln Street takes you to the cathedral. On the way, stop in at Old Harbor Books, a very well-stocked independent bookstore. Diagonally across the street, you’ll find an old-fashioned Ben Franklin five-and-dime where you can stock up on necessities for your cruise. (If planning to tramp through the woods, Xtratuf boots are the locals’ galoshes of choice.) There are also several Native American craft stores selling beautiful wood carvings, jewelry, weavings, and more.

What to do in Sitka

Bald Eagle
An American bald eagle at Alaska Raptor Center. (Shutterstock)

Activities

Fortress of the Bear: The nonprofit facility, established by Les and Evy Kinnear, just a short way out of town, takes in orphaned bear cubs and eventually releases them into the wild. We watch as Les tosses a large sofa cushion down to Toby, a mature female grizzly with a ton of personality who joyfully rips the cushion to shreds, then stands up on her hind legs and puts her giant paws together in a gesture that means “food, please!” From a viewing area above the large compound, we watch cubs climbing in trees and two adult males cavorting in water, playing on swings, and knocking over large barrels. For those on a cruise, a $3 shuttle service to the attraction is offered from the dock ($10 adults, $5 kids 7-18).

Alaska Raptor Center: A rescue facility, it claims a 70 percent success rate in healing wounded birds. Go there to see bald eagles, peregrine falcons, large and tiny owls, red-tailed hawks, and more ($13 adults, $6 kids 6-12).

Native Culture: Visit the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Tribal Community House to experience  a half-hour performance of songs handed down through the  generations. Afterward, meet the cast and pose for selfies with them in their traditional garb ($10 adults, $5 kids).

Ghost Tour: This one-hour walk through the back alleys and passageways of the town is led by a guide dressed in 1867 period costume and makes for a pleasant evening activity.  Along the way, you’ll “meet” the spirits of children who died in the hardscrabble early days of the town.  The tour concludes with a visit to the old Russian cemetery, which is wild and overgrown and beautiful ($30).

Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest: Take this 3-hour boat ride to see humpback whales, puffins, cormorants, and thousands of black-headed murres nesting in caves on the otherwise uninhabited Lazaria Island. A highlight: packs of super-cute sea otters floating together intertwined in what’s known as a “raft” ($130 adults, $84 kids 3-12).

Dine

The Beak: Fresh-caught fish, informal atmosphere — popular with locals. Reasonable prices. Great food and service, and here’s something you don’t expect: a no-tipping policy.

Longliner Lodge and Suites: Excellent food, fresh fish. Ask for a table on the deck for great harbor views. (Rooms $230 and up.)

Stay

Ann’s Gavan Hill Bed & Breakfast: Consider this very comfortable and homey B&B, where the morning meal is an over-the-top production with delicious coffee cooked up and served by Ann herself ($105/night double occupancy).

Hike

Gavan Hill: Active types should consider a half-day hike up Gavan Hill, the trailhead for which is a few blocks from the center of town.  In the steepest sections, you get a little help from steps carved out of timber. The old-growth forest is lovely, and there’s a small lookout platform at the top to reward hikers with fabulous views of the town below and the mountains and sea beyond.

Featured image: UnCruise passengers hiking above Glacier Bay. (UnCruise)

This article is featured in the September/October 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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