Cruising On The Wild Side
These cruisers found a wonderful new playground full of animals, ice, gourmet food, and lots of activity in untamed Alaska.
My husband, Toby, and I sail our Bristol 43, Viva, in the Massachusetts Bay area, and have cruised Down East along the coast of Maine, as far as the St. John’s River in New Brunswick, Canada. When not on the water, we have a 30-plus-year ritual of annually hiking Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in the state of Maine at more than 5,200 feet. So when Toby asked me if I wanted a change of pace — a big one at that — and skip the hike for a chartered cruise in Alaska, he offered a perfectly acceptable compromise:
"We could still hike and kayak, plus see lots of glaciers and bears instead of the loons and moose of Katahdin." I was sold.
We flew to Juneau, Alaska, continued in a small Cessna to Gustavus, got a lift to Bartlett Cove, and walked down the Glacier Bay National Park dock … to a beautiful yacht.
Sea Wolf is a 97-foot oceangoing ship – launched in 1941 as a Naval minesweeper – that today carries 12 passengers plus a half-dozen crew. She's an amazing expedition platform for cruising, wildlife spotting, whale watching, and as a kayaking mothership.
We were greeted by Kimber Owen, Sea Wolf's owner, and four crew, and shown our cabin, which was roomy with two berths and an en suite bathroom. Once we dropped our luggage, we were invited to come to the salon/library to meet the other eight guests.
Before I knew it, docklines were tossed and we were off. A few minutes later, we were in the pilothouse with binoculars watching and "wowing" at humpback whales cavorting. Suddenly, directly in front of us, a humpback breached almost entirely out of the water and smacked down. Across the bay, a humpback was splashing with its tail. And right beside us, we heard them first, then watched several humpbacks blow, dive, then reappear a bit farther along and then do it all over again.
Then I saw my first sea otter. She floated by, going backward, her little face looking up, her big hind feet in the air, and she carried a baby otter on her tummy. The next minute, she rolled over, disappeared and came up – her baby still clinging to her belly. I was totally mesmerized. Over the next six days, we would see hundreds of sea otters, sometimes alone, some in pairs, or dozens rafted together and tangled in seaweed. We were certainly not in New England anymore.
By 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million – 2 cents an acre – the sea otter population was in dire straights. Their population, once estimated at nearly 300,000, was decimated by hunters who sold their pelts until 1911. At that time, their population was estimated at 1,000 to 2,000. An international hunting ban, conservation efforts, and reintroduction programs have helped them rebound to more than 100,000. Glacier Bay alone has about 14,000 now.
Exploring The Unknown
We anchored for the night near 11-milelong Reid Glacier. The next day, we went ashore with Beth and Julie, the two naturalists aboard, to explore. Yarrow, a 12-year-old eighth-grader from Gustavus, Alaska, was on board with her mom. She took a couple of licks of the glacier ice and pronounced it “Yummy!” None of us dared taking a taste, especially when Julie pointed out inside the ice some tiny squirming worms feeding on red algae.
Later, we motored to the larger Margerie Glacier, one of the most active and frequently visited glaciers in Glacier Bay, declared a National Monument in 1925. We anchored near a cliff face where thousands of black-legged kittiwakes roosted and screeched. Off in the distance were the snow-capped mountains of the Fairweather Range.
Some of us kayaked, while some of us in a skiff with Capt. Craig went closer to the 350-foot aquamarine wall of ice, a mile across. Capt. Craig turned off the engine, and we floated in among smaller icebergs. We could hear ice cracking in the glacier and then all of a sudden, on one side, there was a loud blast, thundering like multiple cannons. Huge chunks of ice, the size of buildings, calved off the face of the glacier, sending tons of water and spray upward and outward. A few minutes later, the skiff rocked and rolled from the mini tidal wave.
We picked up a piece of floating ice and, back on board Sea Wolf, Jacob the engineer broke it into small pieces for our water glasses at supper.
According to Kimber, Margerie Glacier, where we got the ice, is about 400 years old. "Our glaciers are warm glaciers. They are rivers of ice moving down the mountain valleys," she told us. Imagine 400-year-old ice cubes! And, no, there were no worms in our drinks.
Steve, one of the guests, initiated a "bear alert" because he saw bears, but also eagles, puffins, seals, Steller sea lions, and whales. The little black and brown shapes moving in the distance along beaches turned into big black and brown bears, eating goose tongue vegetation, with some turning over 100-pound rocks looking for barnacles.
Every day we kayaked and hiked. One day, we hiked Gloomy Knob, where white mountain goats live among the sheer cliffs. Yarrow, the young guest, returned with a bouquet of yellow cinquefoil, red fireweed, blue lupine, and, naturally, white yarrow, all tied together with long strands of mountain goat hair she'd found in bushes where a goat had rubbed it off.
One warm day, several of us went for a swim in the cold, clear water. Glacier Bay was not at all like the bone-numbing Atlantic in February where I've endured a polar plunge.
And The Food!
Kimber also turned out to be an amazing gourmet chef. Everything was plentiful, attractively presented, homemade, organic, locally produced, and some even from her personal garden. We ate homemade yogurts, scones, bagels, garden-fresh salads, local salmon, halibut, Dungeness crab, cookies, and cocktail canapés.
Some of us, with Beth, collected seaweed. At cocktail time, we enjoyed "pop weed," chopped bits of seaweed, tossed in olive oil and brewer's yeast, and slow roasted at 250 degrees.
All too soon, it was our last day and time for us to leave Glacier Bay. I saw my last sea otter floating backward, but this time, she held a rock near her face. Julie explained that some sea otters carry a favorite rock that they use like a hammer for smashing open sea urchins or mussels.
Again, we saw humpbacks, three of them blowing and diving. Capt. Craig turned off the motor and lowered a hydrophone over the side. We listened to clicks, musical high and low sounds, slapping, as they communicated with each other. I'd like to think they were saying, "Please come back." I wish I could have communicated, too. "Thank you," I would have said. "I hope to, some day soon."
More Options In Alaska
Our editorial director, Bernadette Bernon, returned from Alaska last summer, with firsthand advice for members:
"For boaters, one of the best areas for chartering in all of Alaska is the stretch between Glacier Bay and Petersburg, with its protected anchorages, stunning fiords and forests, and dramatic glaciers. Big cruise ships can't go up many of these fiords due to their size.
"After much research, my husband and I decided to go for 8 days on David B, a exquisitely restored 1929 wood cannery tug — which still uses its original engine and windlass! — all maintained with precision and love by the boat's owners and operators, Jeffrey and Christine Smith.
"David B accommodated 8 guests in pure comfort, had kayaks, boots, and binoculars for all, a cozy wood stove, and a rugged aluminum excursion dinghy for safe, stable beaching. Book a cabin or the whole boat. The Smiths also offer specialty weeks for wildlife photography workshops, courses on taking your own boat up the Northwest Passage, and Christine is a gourmet chef.
"We flew in to Juneau — the hub of activity in the region — three days before the charter and went salmon and halibut fishing, then took a float plane to a remote river for fly fishing. Book these adventures well in advance."