Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska
I was less than enthusiastic when the opportunity for an Alaska cruise arose. Actually, I turned it down first the time around. Nothing against Alaska, which I understood to be a place of great natural splendors; I bristled at the idea of boarding a floating hotel in Seattle or Vancouver and being whisked at a vast rate of knots for a weeklong northbound marathon of coastal highlights. However, Alaska didn’t give up. One year later it came calling again, and this time it had an offer I couldn’t resist: The Island Spirit.
CATCHING THE ISLAND SPIRIT
I board the Island Spirit in Peterburg, a small fishing port still solidly anchored to its Norwegian roots, wedged on the Northern tip of Mitkof Island, in the Alexander Archiplago of Southern Alaska. The unassuming blue vessel barely stands out among the jumble of working fishing boats in the tiny harbor. But the powerful 128 foot (39 meter) long ship, once a rugged oilrig supply vessel painstakingly repurposed by his owner and captain Jeff Behrens, is just the right size to squeeze its way into narrow fjords and idyllic anchorages inaccessible to larger vessels. On board, it’s all casual comfort and thoughtful amenities: viewing decks on both passenger levels plus a rooftop “terrace”, large sliding windows everywhere and good binoculars always within easy reach. And Captain Jeff is a man with a passion for the pristine wilderness of Southern Alaska. He and his enthusiastic crew of eight clearly can’t wait to share it with us, the 16 passengers on this early June voyage.
We leave Petersburg on the evening tide, sailing up Frederick Sound at a leisurely 10 knots per hour (that’s 11.5 mile or 18.5 kilometer for us landlubbers). Within minutes, any hint of human encroachment disappears. All that’s left is unspoiled Alaska immensity. Distant snowy peaks sparkle in the clear dusk light. Within two hours, we’ve reached Portage Bay, our anchorage for the night.
The next morning we get underway at 7:00 AM. I am still hovering at the edge of consciousness, lulled by the gentle rocking of the ship, when Captain Jeff’s announces over the ship’s public address system: “whales at eleven o’clock”. We all emerge from our cabins, most of us with anoraks hastily thrown over pajamas, to congregate just a few feet a way on the bow viewing deck.
WHAT’S WITH FORD’S TERROR?
Today’s destination is Ford’s Terror, a cove protected from the outside world by a passage so narrow that the Island Spirit is said to be the only commercial passenger vessel in the area small enough to navigate it. Additionally, fierce currents make the canyon unmanageable at any time but slack tide (the moment when currents stand still while the tide turns). The cove is named for a late nineteenth century sailor who didn’t follow this wise procedure when he tried to row a dinghy through the twisting gorge and was trapped in its roiling waters for several harrowing hours. We wait in Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord framed by towering granite cliffs, for the timing to be just right before engaging into the passage.
We emerge into an oblong cove rimmed with dramatic slopes of black pines forests streaked by thundering waterfalls. Above the tree line, snowy mountaintops gleam against the cloudless cerulean sky. As we finish our dinner, First Mate Andy announces that a grizzly bear is grazing at the water’s edge. We don our life vests and rush en masse toward the awaiting skiff.
The weather is still radiant the next morning and wildlife viewing stunning. A flush of colorful harlequin ducks take flight just in front of the skiff, a marten peers at us from behind a rock and a black bear sow and her three tiny cubs scamper as we approach while bald eagles soar above. I muse that, should Captain Jeff decide to remain in Ford’s Terror for a week, I would happily forgo the remainder of the itinerary. But we are off again on the afternoon slack tide.
A mile-long wall of ice
The next morning is all gloom and mist. Ice floes get increasingly larger as we head up Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier. Then the ship slows to a crawl and we are staring slack-jawed at an approaching mile-long wall of jagged ice about 20 stories high. Captain Jeff inches the ship forward to a mere 600 feet (200 meters) from the glacier. We spend the rest of the morning listening intently for the next gunshot sound of cracking ice, followed by huge slabs of ice sliding into the sea. Crew members hand out cups of hot cocoa to ward off the chill.
Pulling into Juneau that evening is a bit of a downer. The entire waterfront is lined with city block-sized cruise ships pouring throngs of tourists onto the streets of the state capital. Churlish of me I admit, but I opt to forgo joining them for an after dinner stroll. I am in a better mood the next morning, when I discover that most of the behemoths have vanished during the night.
Totem Poles and Icons
The small Juneau State Museum with its superb collection of objects from Alaska’s many native populations is well worth a visit. Still, I am glad when we sail again toward Chichagof Island and anchor off Tenakee Springs (population 129) where Main Street is a stretch of gravel road lined with small wooden homes.
The next day we stop at the tiny settlement of Baranof Warm Springs (seasonal population 30). Here, Main Street is a simple boardwalk leading up a hill to hot spring pools located right where we enjoy a soak with a view next to a roaring waterfall.
Our final destination is Sitka, a bustling fishing port with a varied cultural heritage as the home of the native Tlingit people for over 10,000 years as well as the nineteenth century capital of Russian America. This allows me to enjoy in the course my last Alaskan afternoon a striking open air display of Tlingit totem poles and, in the onion-domed Saint Michael’s cathedral, the richest collection of Russian orthodox icons I have ever seen.
Never did nine days in the slow lane flee so quickly.
GOOD TO KNOW
With comfortable accommodations for a maximum of 32 passengers, the Island Spirit offers an opportunity to explore at leisure the narrowest fjords of the Inside Passage of Alaska from May to September. Its small size enables it to sail in close proximity to glaciers, waterfalls and other natural wonders. Owner and captain Jeff Behrens adjusts the itinerary in real time to take full advantage of frequent wildlife sightings, including whales, porpoises and sea lions.