A unique visit to Alaska in a small yacht
The Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska is the kind of place that inspires multiple visits. On my first two trips, I cruised past its lush rainforests and coastal mountains via the large, state-run ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway.
On my most recent trip, though, I hopped aboard the 85-foot MV Windward, the first charter yacht in Alaska, built in 1924. With only four cabins, the yacht is more intimate than the ferries and giant cruise ships that sail up and down the Inside Passage all summer.
On the seven-day trip I got to know everyone, including the three-person crew. The Windward was able to access coves and bays that larger boats cannot. And our itinerary was flexible, enabling us to change course to see whales, kayak in protected waters or dodge icebergs.
On cloudy days, we chugged through a silver world, passing islands covered in tall evergreens. Tufts of clouds and fingers of mist hung in the air between the hills and islands, wrapping the rolling contours of green in wispy cotton. On sunny days, we sat in shirtsleeves on the deck, soaking up the warm rays.
I woke up early every morning to stand on the deck and watch eagles swoop, salmon leap and sea lions play as the sky turned colors in the emerging dawn. There was plenty of time to read, nap, contemplate, or look for whales spouting in the distance.
Despite the relaxed pace, though, there were plenty of active moments. We kayaked for an hour or so most days, usually an easy paddle in a protected cove, along a beach or around an island.
One day we disembarked to hike through an old-growth rainforest to a lake. It was only three miles round trip, but the rough trail and the fresh bear scat made it seem longer.
The soft green forest muted the sounds we made to scare off the bears — or at least not catch them by surprise. Our noisy efforts must have worked, since we didn’t run into any. I was both disappointed and relieved.
Another day we hiked up a hill alongside a roaring river to a natural hot spring. After picking my way along a rocky, muddy trail, I felt as if I had earned the soak.
We saw tons of wildlife, pun intended. We spent almost two full days spotting whales — mostly humpbacks and a few orcas. Some were in the distance, but many swam alongside the boat, flipping their tails as if waving goodbye before diving.
One swam so close I got a photo of his nostril-like blowholes; another breached just a few feet off our bow, spraying me with an impressive splash as he flopped back into the water.
We also spent an afternoon at a fish hatchery, watching a dozen bears scrounge for salmon in the river just 20 or 30 yards away. We had enough time to note the bears’ personalities, relationships and even a dramatic teeth-baring exchange of snarls and growls between two bears challenging each other over a choice fishing spot in the river.
It’s hard to top whales and bears, but the last two days of the trip came close, cruising down Endicott Arm, a long fjord carved deep into the snow-capped mountains of the Coast Range.
A fjord and a glacier
Our first stop was Fords Terror, a steep and narrow fjord branching off from Endicott Arm, named after a naval crewman who rowed through the narrows in 1899 at slack tide only to spend several scary hours trapped by the turbulent, twisting currents when the tide surged out.
To avoid any terror, we waited for high tide before entering the narrows. It was a breathtaking ride between granite walls 2,000 feet high with streams cascading through the seams in the rock.
John Muir compared these cliffs to Yosemite Valley. That only begins to describe the dramatic beauty of this place, one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever visited. We stopped for the night at the end of the fjord, which felt like the end of the world.
The next morning, it was worth getting up early to watch the sun touch the snow-capped peaks behind the walls of rock, then creep down the sheer walls to the water.
Mist hung over the stunning reflections of the walls in the water, and the fragrance of evergreens filled the air. The only sound was the soft rustle of distant waterfalls.
On the way out of the fjord at high tide, we got in the kayaks to observe the waterfalls up close and paddle the last couple of miles back through the now-placid narrows to our boat waiting for us on the other side.
Once aboard we headed to Dawes Glacier, a massive tidal glacier — about 200 feet high and a half mile across — that carved out the fjord millions of years ago. Our captain carefully threaded his way through the many icebergs and bergy bits floating by.
We gazed at the glacier for hours, bundled up against the cold wind, listening for the cracks of thunder that signaled the calving of chunks of ancient, deep blue ice, some as big as houses, crashing into the water.
There, on essentially the last day of the trip, I knew I probably wouldn’t come back this way again. It would be hard to match this trip, and impossible to beat.
Don will be leading a trip to SE Asia in October. For more information, go to explorer-x.com/msa-southeast-asia-2019.