Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
I’ve been aboard the ship one hour when a fellow passenger spots orcas off to the left, three hours when the captain sees humpbacks 100 yards to the right. The next morning a bald eagle soars overhead while I’m eating breakfast. For someone who grew up in places where a neighborhood park was considered a wilderness area, Alaska is an alternate universe.
My husband and I are aboard the Island Spirit, a 32-passenger ship that’s one of the smallest commercial vessels to ply the Inside Passage. During a nine-day outing we weave into small inlets that are off-limits to larger vessels, visit a limestone grotto that’s hidden in a fairytale forest and hike to a rocky glacier fronted by a field of grass and wildflowers.
What we don’t do is check email (no wi-fi), use our cell phone (no cell service) or give two hoots about the state of the world. We are wonderfully, blissfully disconnected.
Before we left home, we made a Bucket List of Alaskan Must-Sees. Number One: Bears.
Along with six other passengers we take a sturdy skiff to a narrow stream that’s bridged by a small waterfall. The driver turns off the motor. After about five minutes a bear ambles out of the forest, walks to a rock, stares into the stream. He’s a picky one, evidently not too hungry, because although the water is polka-dotted with salmon, he merely makes a few half-hearted attempts to catch one and then wanders away.
Meanwhile an older bear walks down the same path, scoops up a salmon and, before he leaves, looks straight at us as if posing for a photo. This bear should be a tourism ambassador.
We cross Number One off our Bucket List and concentrate on Number Two: Whales.
With the flexibility offered by a small ship, the captain can alter course based on whim, weather or, as we soon learn, whales. He steers the boat up to a large group of the giant mammals — not just any whales but huge humpbacks engaged in bubble net feeding, a ritual that involves surrounding small fish (usually herring) with a “net” of bubbles, pushing the trapped bait to the surface and in a genetically choreographed dance leaping out of the water to devour their catch. It is, for me, the highlight of the trip. I give it a Bucket List star.
Of course, we also see other marine creatures — sun starfish, a sea lion trying to climb a buoy, a variety of iridescent jellyfish, and sea anemones that shimmer like glass sculptures.
Bucket List Number Two — check. We move on to Number Three: Small Towns.
After a quick stop in Tenakee Springs, a tiny community of fewer than 100 people, we dock in the comparatively large fishing village of Petersburg, population 2,000. The town is out-of-reach for big-ship travelers, but small ship visits provide enough tourists to support a three-block long Main Street that includes a top-notch bookstore, a hardware store that has morphed into a full general store with everything from bear-themed socks to seven-legged crab magnets, and a bar that offers beer, pool, music and painting classes — all at the same time.
Our final Bucket List item: Wilderness.
It’s early morning when we board the skiff for the ride to Dawes Glacier. The sky is gloriously blue, the temperature chillingly cold. I pull my scarf up to cover my face and then I hear it — the sounds of crashing ice. Large chunks of ice are breaking off the end of the glacier and splashing into the water. In other words, the glacier is calving, or birthing, icebergs.
But it isn’t until that afternoon when we reach Ford’s Terror that we experience Alaskan-style Wilderness. The secluded fjord is guarded by a narrow channel that can only be traversed at specific times and by very small ships. The Island Spirit is one of the few — if not only — commercial ships to overnight in Ford’s Terror. I can’t decide whether to be thrilled by the area’s beauty or terrified by our isolation, as was Ford, the naval surveyor whose adventure gave the inlet its name.
The following morning we awaken to a universe of complete solitude. The water is calm, the trees high, the clouds low and the air misty due to an overnight rain.
We spend the day exploring the area by kayak and skiff. The mist adds to the magic, and we’re reluctant to return to the ship. But the captain has reminded us that we have only fifteen minutes when the waters will be calm enough for us to safely exit the fjord. Otherwise, we’ll be trapped by the tides for another six hours. Tempting to be sure, but we all have planes to catch.
Our bucket list is complete. Our Alaskan fantasy has become a reality.