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When it comes to cruising Alaska, think small

On a walk in downtown Sitka, Alaska, last June, my wife, Kim, and I bought a book on the street from its author, Tracie Harang, a young Alaskan woman who happened to have with her the book’s two subjects, her son and his dog. Titled Sitka Tango Explores the Causeway, the book traces the adventure of Brady Harang and his dog, Sitka Tango, as they explore the history of that small town’s role during World War II, when bunkers and other structures were built there for U.S. forces.

After speaking to Tracie and Brady for a couple of minutes, we bought a copy of the charming book because they had published it themselves using a story the two had written and photographs Tracie had taken. It was our first encounter with the spirit of self-reliance and independence that characterizes that remarkable state.

Afterward, we joined our group for a small-vessel cruise of southeast Alaska with Fantasy Cruises, a Seattle-based cruise company that offers a distinctly different take on Alaska cruising.

“Welcome to the coldest state with the hottest governor,” joked our guide the following day as we began a tour of Sitka. Although it wasn’t cold in June, it was cloudy, nothing unexpected for that part of the Pacific Northwest. And, as it turned out, Gov. Sarah Palin resigned while we were on the trip, the day after we toured Juneau and walked by the governor’s mansion.

We visited the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, a facility first opened in 1897 that has operated ever since. Jackson was a Presbyterian minister who spent his lifetime preserving the culture of the native Alaskans. He bartered, purchased and traded for all the items in his collection.

“The Tlingit Indians were the primary residents here,” said our guide. “They were native to the area and were primarily fishermen. They repelled the Russians as long as they could. They were a relatively affluent culture and had a lot of time to create art. The Russians were after sea otters for their pelts.”

The Jackson museum contains canoes and kayaks, ornamental wood bowls for ceremonial feasts, fish and sealskin clothing, tools and basketry.

Alaska’s birds of prey

Next we visited the Alaska Raptor Center, a superb facility for viewing Alaska’s birds of prey.

“Bald eagles have recently been taken off the endangered species list,” our interpreter told us. “There are 100,000 or so in existence now, and half of those are in Alaska. Twenty-five thousand of those are in southeast Alaska in and around the inside passage. These magnificent raptors have vision eight times stronger than humans.”

We boarded the Island Spirit that afternoon and began our voyage. Typically, I’m up around 5:30 a.m., and on this ship I could count on being joined each morning by half a dozen others each day. One early morning, a whale surfaced a mile or so away blowing into the shrouded mist. The whales blow and dive, then stay down for several minutes. They are not breeching, but it is still impressive as they bring a large portion of their bodies to the surface.

“You missed the whale this morning,” someone said to Wanda Dawson as she came up for breakfast. “It was out there blowing. You couldn’t see anything but the spout up in the air.”
“Well, if there’s a spout, there’s a whale beneath it, isn’t there?” she replied.

Captain Jeff Behrens spoke to our group at breakfast that morning to “put us on our best behavior.”

“The little village we’re visiting, Tenakee Springs, is only 100 people in the summer, maybe 35 in winter,” he said. “Another cruise company brought a group in a few years back, and the passengers were walking through town peering through windows and walking through peoples’ gardens. The mayor called the company and said, ‘Thank you very much for not coming back.’

“So, all I ask is that you buy something — anything — at the mercantile store or bakery and that you stay out of people’s gardens. We’re almost the biggest thing that comes in there now.”
So we went into tiny Tenakee Springs under a second day of brooding skies.

Most of the summer residents are from Juneau; they keep second homes out there. Fishermen come in for a drink or a meal. There is a community bathhouse with hours posted for men and women. We could hear children splashing away in the bathhouse while we walked through town.

We stopped in the mercantile store and bakery and bought a few cards. We watched a floatplane come in.

“They’re bringing a puppy,” said Kim. “Someone in town told me they had a rough winter and lost three dogs, so there’s a puppy coming in on this plane.”

Sure enough, in a few minutes, two women came up the ramp with a small puppy on a leash. I don’t know where the puppy came from, but its life changed dramatically when it arrived in Tenakee Springs. Within two minutes, the plane had left.

The homes and businesses in Tenakee Springs line one main street, which is not paved. There is no room to grow there. On one side of the road is rocky beach, and the other side is pressed against a steep mountain. It is a one-horse town, and the horse never made it.

A bar not to be missed
“Did you have a beer at Rosie’s?” a fisherman asked us as we walked back to the skiff to board the ship.

“You mean there’s a bar up there?” I asked.

“Sure, it’s right there beside the bathhouse.”

“We missed it,” I said. “I wish we’d known.”

“Filipino woman named Rosie runs it,” he said. “It’s also a restaurant. You can get a beer for $3.75 and a hamburger for $7.75. She also serves steak and pork chops.”

He invited me to tour his fishing boat, which I did. It turns out he’s been fishing in Alaska for 30 years and spends his winters in Arizona playing golf. When he told me that, my view of fishing for a living changed dramatically.

The next day, we cruised for a couple of hours into Juneau, and the skies were clearing! As beautiful as Alaska had been under clouds, we all knew that sunny skies would intensify everything about that magnificent state. We arrived in late morning, and the capital city was buzzing. It’s built into the mountainsides there — a beautiful spot. It was clear as we disembarked. Some of us took the tram up the mountain; others headed off to walk through town.

Kim and I chose to have lunch on the ship: fresh shrimp Caesar wraps and a quinoa salad served with lemon ginger soup. The shrimp wraps were amazing — I ate two and part of another.

After lunch, we hiked up to the governor’s mansion and met Jeff for a beer at the Red Dog Saloon. The little bar is very touristy but still fun. It features lots of sawdust on the floors and a piano player, and specializes in frivolity.

Summer at last
By the time we made it back to the Island Spirit, it was midafternoon beneath a bright, cloudless sky. Everyone did a complete wardrobe change. Off came the wool socks and parkas; out came the sandals and shorts. It was summer in Alaska!

Brenda Blythe came on the PA system and told everyone sitting outside that we’d have to put on sunscreen — a bit motherly but what a glorious announcement. Jeff said he was sending staff around the ship to take drink orders, another glorious announcement. The ship’s crew was making the most of the wonderful change in the weather, and we all appreciated it.

We had dinner on the way to our next stop and sat down for a program about glaciers. Mel is the ship’s naturalist, and she had just begun to speak when her program was interrupted by whales that took everyone out on the decks.

“Where we are going tomorrow afternoon is very exclusive,” she said to those of us who made it back inside. “You have to go into Ford’s Terror at slack tide, because otherwise, the currents can be as strong as 16 knots and you’d never make it through.”

Behrens has added a topside viewing area to the Island Spirit for these trips to Alaska. A winter’s worth of hard work yielded a great new platform for viewing humpback whales, sea lions, bears and eagles, among others. He also had to add several feet of new hull reinforcement to make the Island Spirit up to code for Alaska cruising. Ice is the big problem here for any boater.

Later that morning, we rode into Dawe’s Glacier. It was cold and very clear. I rode outside on top the entire way, bouncing back and forth between binoculars and camera. We encountered a never-ceasing parade of bright blue ice coming from the glacier. The ice became larger and more random as we went. Some of these glacial fragments resembled bizarre ice sculptures; others had almost classical lines. The Island Spirit slithered past them for miles.

Waterfalls cascaded from ledges on both sides of us. We were deep into the glacier’s path now, an ice-strewn graveyard littered with blue and white bodies, frigid and silent. We passed a couple of research boats on our way in and rounded a turn to see the full extent of Dawe’s Glacier dead ahead. From pearly white on top to sooty black beneath, the glacier seemed a living thing, something ominous made of ice and earth. That wall of ice was the backdrop to an otherworldly scene.

Afterward, we headed on into Ford’s Terror, a hidden cove that only small vessels ever find. We entered a neck so narrow you could almost jump off the boat and land in shallow water.
“Everybody, lift your feet up — we don’t have any room to spare,” said Behrens jokingly.
We made it in and began sailing through a narrow gorge. Waterfalls were everywhere. Many were only a few feet wide and fell hundreds of feet. Others were expansive and flattened against a broad rock face.

We set anchor about midafternoon, put kayaks out and floated for an hour or so. Kim and I went up to the base of several waterfalls that empty into the lake. We kept an eye out for bears, without luck.

The following morning the sun began to light the uppermost rock faces long before it would warm our faces. We could see only one other small boat several miles away. An alpine waterfall on the far northern rock face could be seen but not heard.

Kim and I went for a morning kayak trip with a few others. It was July 4th, Independence Day in America’s most independent state. No fireworks were needed here — we were inspired enough by the America that surrounded us. Later, back out in Endicott Arm, we had a Fourth of July dinner: barbecued ribs, brisket, crab legs, coleslaw, baked beans and, for dessert, “As American As Apple Pie” with ice cream.

Johnny grabbed his bow
After dinner, we had an unexpected treat. Johnny, Jeff’s first mate, grabbed his fiddle, and we all sat back on the bow and listened. He played about five or six songs. Gene Colville, a fun-loving Texan, did a couple of right-hand swings with unsuspecting women on deck. Johnny’s fiddle was dead on. It was good music for Alaskan waters — raw and unrehearsed.

The following morning, we cruised into Petersburg. The picturesque fishing community is primarily Norwegian. We had a couple of hours in the afternoon to walk around town. We found a bookstore and bought another copy of our new favorite book, Sitka Tango Explores the Causeway, to leave on the ship. For dinner that night, we were entertained in the Sons of Norway hall by a troupe of young Norwegian girls who performed dances in traditional dress.

We pulled out of Petersburg and headed up Wrangell Narrows. “The fishermen call this Christmas Tree Lane because of all the navigation lights,” said Brenda. “This is a natural waterway that has been dredged for boat traffic to save time between Petersburg and Wrangell. At low tide, it is only 19 feet deep, so the ferries are very careful coming through here.”

Wrangell was the last stop of the memorable trip. We pulled in about midafternoon and enjoyed our final thrill: Behrens had arranged for a jet boat ride with Breakaway Adventures up the Stikine River. We followed a labyrinth of streams into glacial lakes and, finally, to the glacier itself. Our captain shoved the small boat as far into the icy flow at it would go until a few of us disembarked and stood in triumph on a huge ice flow.

Back in Wrangell, a storm blew in that night. Children and adults from town all came down to the harbor to watch the weather arrive. Lightning and thunder are seldom seen or heard there, and it was a big show for the little town. But it never hit us. Behrens joined a few of us as we sat onboard the Island Spirit and watched the maelstrom passing into the distance.

Unless I’m mistaken, all we did was watch that storm and talk about coming back.

Fantasy Cruises
(800) 234-3861