Getting there wasn’t easy. We flew from Tampa to Seattle to visit a friend there, overnighting at the Seattle Marriott near the airport for a morning flight that went through Vancouver to Prince Rupert, where the airport is on an island, necessitating a bus to a ferry, then a ferry ride to the Crest Motor Hotel for another overnight. The next morning after a tour of the city and the countryside, we finally boarded the yacht.
The passengers included a retired physician and his wife, two bankers, a social worker and massage therapist who were starting their own retreat, and a now rich man who had helped start a computer company in a garage and his wife, plus us as writer and photographer. The crew consisted of captain, mate, chef, naturalist, two waitresses who also took care of cabins, and a naturalist trainee.
The 105-foot Safari Spirit is very impressive vessel, with beautifully appointed state rooms and a richly furnished salon. Our cabin had twin beds, private bath with shower, individually controlled thermostat, a dressing table, chest of drawers, two hanging lockers, and plenty of room. There were windows, but high so they had no view. Our stateroom was very quiet. (The two aft cabins, closer to the engine, had some vibration and noise when the yacht was underway.) The most elegant staterooms were on the Bridge Deck with king-size bed and large sliding glass doors to a balcony.
It was indeed, as the brochures said, not like traveling on a big cruise ship, but like cruising in your own private yacht. In fact, I hung out at the helm station most of the time we were underway, getting the captain’s eye of the voyage, following our course on the charts, and hearing stories of how whales migrate and the captain’s and mate’s experiences swimming with whales on research voyages. On two afternoons I even got to take the wheel for an hour or so.
The Safari Spirit was an intimate way to see the heart of Alaska up close and personal. We learned just how up close and personal on the first evening when we made our first exploring run in the ship’s zodiac. We had arrived in Foggy Cove, which indeed it was, with mist rising all around, the water flat and still, and the scenery as serene as a Japanese painting. I was huddled behind the naturalist, shaking with cold (I had just come from Florida and was wondering why I hadn’t worn long underwear and a full-length alpaca coat), when we saw the bear. It was a brown bear (you tell by the teddy-bear shape of the face and shoulder hump more than the color – black bears have a pointed face and no hump). It was grazing on grass in a flat meadow along the shore (bears eat mostly grass in the spring, eat salmon at spawning time in the fall). We shut off the outboard engine and quietly glided close to shore, watching the bear and the bear watching us. We sat entranced for quite a while, until the bear decided to check us out more closely and came out on a log just a few feet from us, at which point we quickly got out of there. We saw many bears on other days, but this one was special because it was our first, and it was so close.
We spent the night at anchor in the cove, and the next day explored some more by zodiac and by kayak. Then we cruised to Ketchikan and checked out the museum and other high spots there, luckily on a day when none of the big ships were in port.
Monday morning we left early, cruising through the Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness and arrived in Yes Bay, again with mirror-like calm water. Then three at a time we took a floatplane sightseeing tour of the area, where we flew over mountain lakes, and saw long stretches of ice fields and glaciers, and mountainsides with occasional mountain goats on craggy slopes. In the evening was more kayaking, more zodiac exploration, and a hike to a waterfall.
Going through these remote waterways to secluded bays and coves was wonderful. We took deep breaths of the fresh air and looked hard at the incredible scenery to imprint the views on our memory. We seldom saw another boat. Mostly we saw virgin forests, dotted by an occasional village or fishing lodge. Every bend around the next point meant another glimpse of awesome scenery. The passengers tried to figure ways to rate the views:”5 wows”, “5 ahhs”, “incredible”, “awesome”, “mystical”.
In our evening discussions in the salon we had a lot to talk about. There also were lectures by the naturalist, videos to view, and excellent reference books on Alaska culture and wildlife. There was also a hot tub on deck for relaxing and star-gazing at night.
The next day was Meyers Chock, a fishing village, population 18 (including two families who haven’t spoken to each other in years). We visited the little post office which also housed the village pool table and talked to the local people: the postmistress, a man painting his fishing boat, the woman in the gift shop who warned us there was bear sighted on the trail that morning, the widow who wove baskets to sell. In the afternoon we went by zodiac to an island to explore where a house used to be. Coming through the woods in our orange float suits that we wear for warmth we looked like invading Martians or weird orange guerilla forces moving through the trees. That day in Meyers Chock the chef had loaded up on supplies and we had a dinner on deck of fresh salmon, crab, and barbecued ribs. And the fresh baked bread that we had every day.
By now we had seen several bears, a huge black bear, several browns including one with a cub, as well as eagles, various seabirds, dolphins, and sea otters. And we were appreciating more and more the waterways we were going through, seeing the real Alaska wilderness. The Tongass National Forest that we were cruising through is the largest national forest in the United States, 17 million acres. It is isolated and wild, uncrowded, with huge tracts of old-growth trees… a scarcely touched wilderness with spectacular scenery. There are many streams and lakes and waterfalls because of the high rainfall, and more bears and eagles than anywhere else in the world.
As we went from Prince Rupert on the Canadian/Alaskan border and cruised north to Juneau it was like going back through geological time. We could see the same differences in plant succession that occurred over the centuries as we went from lush fully matured forest to the glaciers, like going back in capsule form to the ice age. After the ice age came lichens and mosses, then pioneer plants like fireweed, later bird droppings brought shrubs and tree seedlings, then willows and cottonwoods and alders, climaxing with spruce and hemlock trees. It takes some 300 years to grow a forest, and every mile we go is like going back 10-15 years in history. And the glaciers are still moving and receding and molding the land. We began to see more and more treeless snowy mountains as we cruised northward.
Our next town was the Norwegian fishing village of Petersburg, and we docked next to dozens and dozens of fishing boats, all reflected in the water at sunset. We walked the town, did some shopping, and after dinner went to Kato’s Kave, the local dance hall/lounge. Our nutty naturalist – we were beginning to catch on to his tricks – said they check at the door for knives or guns, and if you don’t have any, they give you one. There were a lot of beards and boots, but no guns, and we got to know some locals, most of whom