Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

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

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman's art.

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman’s art.

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.

Alaska Frederick Sound.

Dusk on Frederick Sound

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.

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Early morning whale sighting.

 

 

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?

Alaska Inside Passage Ford's Terror.

The Island Spirit anchors for the night in 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.

Alaska Inside Passage Grizzly.

Alaska Grizzly in Ford’s Terror.

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

Alaska Inner Passage glacier calving;

Dawnes Glacier calving

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

Alaska Inside Passage Tenakee Spring.

Tenakee Spring (Population 129)

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.

Alaska Sitka Russian Orthodox Icons

Saint Michael’s Cathedral is a treasure trove of Russian Orthodox Icons

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.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Petersburg, Alaska

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

The pilot of the four-seater Cessna meets me at the small Maun airport, Botswana’s gateway into the country for all safari-goers. Most of them are greeted there by bright young people in the crisp kaki uniform of the handful of safari companies that operate in the lush, waterlogged world of the Okavango Delta. My turn will come, but not today. I am headed into the sun-baked emptiness of the Kalahari, the great desert that covers about 70 percent of this landlocked southern African country roughly the size of France.

Magic in the Makgadikgadi

Botswana-Kalahari. Jack's Camp.

Jack’s Camp entrance reveals a world of unexpected luxury.

The plane drones on for an hour over a flat, featureless terrain all the way to the milky blue horizon. This is the Makgadikgaki, one of the largest salt pans in the world (4,600 square miles – or and area of 12 000 square kilometers). Then the barren eternity is interrupted by an improbable line of fan palm trees. As we get closer, acacia also materialise, then large green canvas tents. “Jack’s Camp,” my pilot volunteers as he begins his approach toward the oasis’ dusty landing strip. I am handed over to my awaiting guide and one short rocky ride later we stop in front of a sprawling tented pavilion that has me questioning whether I haven’t just stepped into a mirage!

Botswana - Kalahari. Guest Tent.

My tent, Number One, is decorated with antiques.

The polished teak floor is covered with mellow oriental carpets. Inviting lounges flow into each other, decorated in a safari style that harks back to the opulence of bygone era. There is a library, a bar with an antique pool table and a well-stocked drinks chest, a dining room with a long mahogany table that can easily seat a dozen. The walls are lined with natural history drawings, century-old photographs and engravings of long ago safari scenes. Display cases are filled with museum-quality local artifacts. My own tent is decorated in the same vein, including the bathroom where all the features and the washbasin are antique copper buffed to a flawless shine.

But what of the safari?

Botswana - Kalahari. Meerkats/

Meerkats emerge from their burrows in the early morning.

Jack’s Camp’s surreal luxury setting, with service to match, is only the beginning. The activities are adapted to the experience of desert life. Sunrise finds me silently waiting for a community of meerkats to emerge from their multiple burrows. Although wild, these gregarious squirrel-sized mongooses are sufficiently habituated to humans that they are unconcerned by my presence. I am able to closely observe their young at play and their rituals as they set out on their daily foraging for insects, fruit and lizards.

Botswana - Kalahari Baobab

Chapman’s Baobab is estimated to be 4,000 years old.

Botswana - Kalahari Bushman.

Cobra is a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder.

I marvel at the daily sight of hundreds of zebras and wildebeests arriving from the Boteti River to the west on their yearly migration to the pans. I have the pleasure to walk with Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet, who shows me the plants and foraging methods that ensured the survival of his ancestors for millennia. I gape at the sight of the Chapman’s baobab, a giant with a seven-pillar trunk 85 feet (25 meters) in diameter, the largest and oldest baobab in Africa (estimated to be close to 4,000 years old). Nineteenth century explorer David Livingstone initials can still be seen, carved upon its rock-like bark. I have my first ever sighting of an aardvark, this particularly rare and elusive nocturnal animal.

Riding into the sunset

Botswana - Kalahari sunset.

Sunset in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.

The most unforgettable experience of my visit to Jack’s Camp is a sunset ride deep into the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. Our guide leads our small caravan of quad bikes (their balloon tires only skim the fragile crusty surface where heavier vehicles would sink) to what is truly the middle of nowhere. The copper sun slides from the cloudless sky behind the gleaming line of the horizon. With the rising moon, the surface of the Pan turns ghostly white. I lay down on my back on the warm salt crust and stare up. In this otherworldly space, unchanged for millennia, my eyes fill with countless stars, and my ears with a silence so deep I can hear my own heartbeat.

Good to know

  • Jack’s Camp is the flagship property of Uncharted Africa  a safari company founded in 1993 and managed by Ralph Bousfield, a naturalist and conservation expert who comes from a long line of African pioneers and adventurers. His own father Jack, after whom the camp is named was a legendary African hunter and safari operator.
  • To contact Unchartered Africa, E-mail:  reservations@unchartedafrica.com
  • Jack’s Camp is decorated mainly with original family antiques.

Location, location, location!

Makgadikgaki Salt Pans, Botswana.