Alaskan Dream Cruises picked us up at our hotel late in the morning on our third day in Sitka. There were 41 passengers and 27 crew members. We spent the afternoon on one of their day tour boats exploring the Sitka Sound area where we saw humpback whales for the first time and the ever delightful sea otters. We boarded our ship, the Baranof Dream, in time for dinner.
I had booked the largest stateroom available, but I was shocked at how small it really was. It was, however, very efficiently arranged once we discovered we could store our suitcases under the bed. We’re a little slow sometimes. Fortunately, Noel and I are not large people, so the short double bed fit us fine, but I seriously wonder how anyone over 6’ tall and with any bulk managed, especially in the smaller staterooms. An important lesson on small ship cruising – spend the extra money for a larger stateroom.
The day ended with the astounding sight of four orcas and one humpback engaged in some kind of altercation. The humpback noisily shook off the orcas like they were annoying jackals. Orcas seem to hunt in packs and can take a humpback down, but not this time.
Traveling at night, the Baranof Dream docked the next morning in Juneau, a gold rush town which replaced Sitka as Alaska’s capital. Apparently, there is some movement to replace Juneau with Anchorage as the capital, but it has been unsuccessful so far.
The day began at the Mendenhall Glacier which is a retreating glacier but still impressive. Juneau is basically a half-day town. The antagonism between independent Alaskan enterprises and large corporations manifested itself again in the comments made by some of the local workers. Holland America Line apparently owns most of the restaurants and gift shops in Juneau and the presence of its large ships in port makes it obvious who dominates. We took the tram ride (run by Alaskan Natives) up Mount Roberts to a nice hiking trail. I regret not stopping in at the Juneau Arts Center.
Our day ended with an evening bash at beautiful Orca Point Lodge owned by Allen Marine where the company takes its day cruise passengers for lunch. We dined on all you can eat king crab supplemented by a huge buffet of sides and outstanding desserts.
We also began to make the acquaintance of our fellow travelers, most roughly our age (sixty-ish) and a nice blend of Americans, Australians and Brits. There was a wide range of political affiliations from a very conservative and quite charming retired Army colonel to lefties like ourselves, but everyone acknowledged the differences with respect, humor and tolerance. Maybe small ship cruising is the solution to the ideological gridlock in Washington. It was interesting to observe a few “mixed marriages” of progressive women probably leaning Democratic paired with Republican men.
With the exception of the captain and the supervisory staff, the crew was generally very young, early twenties and thirties. The jobs on boats like this are seasonal with the crew working as much as 80-90 hours a week with no days off. When the season ends in mid September, many of the crew take off for adventures in other far-flung parts of the world.
Glacier Ice, Cocktails and Talks
We spent the following day exploring the glaciers of Glacier Bay from the decks of the ship as well as from the DIB, an inflatable pontoon-type boat which allowed us to get really close to the action.
We had to wear some really obnoxiously large life jackets that made it almost impossible to move. We did watch some pretty dramatic and noisy calving of icebergs by the glaciers. The noise is called “white thunder.” It was surprising how difficult it is to judge distances because everything is on such a large scale. To me it felt like we were on a giant sound stage because the situation was so unreal but clearly tangible.
The best glacier viewing was in the Tracy Arm Fjord a few days later. The fjord harbors twin glaciers, Sawyer and South Sawyer Glacier, located at its end. At one time they were one glacier but receding divided them in two. Calving and white thunder are the most dramatic here. Harbor seals are abundant on the icebergs because the seals can give birth and raise their young in relative safety from the orcas. Orcas don’t like to be where there are icebergs. On the way in and out of the fjord we were treated to the sight of remarkable waterfalls. On that day we finally had blue skies.
Every evening after dinner in the lounge where the excellent bar was located, a member of the crew or an invited specialist gave a talk on a cultural subject or a natural phenomenon. One night a Tlingit woman named Naa Kisti or Faith Grant (her “Social Security name” as she put it) spoke about the social organization of her tribe. The Tlingit are matrilineal and are divided into two moieties or descent groups, eagle and raven. A person’s moiety is determined by that of his or her mother. A person cannot marry within his or her moiety. Ravens marry eagles and eagles marry ravens. This probably keeps the gene pool healthy. We also heard talks on glaciers, whales, bears, salmon, the Alaskan Native civil rights movement and Russians in Alaska.
The bar in the lounge was overseen by Anthony who came up with a special cocktail concoction every evening. My favorite was the Glacier Bay cosmo made with glacier ice, Framboise, vodka, a splash of cranberry juice and a healthy squeeze of lime. The ship also offered a small but very good selection of wines. Every afternoon at 3:30 freshly baked cookies were available in the lounge and at 5:30 hors d’oeuvres. There was always a gluten-free option.
Hiking Bear Trails and Rushing Gold
One morning the crew landed us on Chichagof Island via the DIB for a bit of hiking. Chichagof Island is where the Tlingit from Sitka retreated after the Battle of Sitka. We hiked some bear trails to a beautiful waterfall, but I felt like the crew was flying a bit by the seat of their pants because they hadn’t really scouted out the trail and we had to backtrack quite a bit. I wish we had brought hiking poles with us. Waterproof boots were a must. Chichagof Island has the highest bear population per square mile of any place on the planet, so as we noisily hiked along, we kept shouting out, “Hey, bear!” Theoretically, bears will stay away if you’re noisy enough and we must have been because we didn’t run into any.
The day after the hike we toured Skagway and Haines. One of our Australian friends on the boat called Skagway “a combination historical preserve and theme park.” To my mind it’s an Alaskan Tombstone, Arizona. Like Juneau, Skagway is an old gold rush town but what a gold rush!
The night before in the lounge we watched a video about the particularities of the Yukon Gold Rush that established Skagway. Juneau’s gold rush had begun about twenty years earlier in 1880. Between 1896 and 1899 100,000 prospectors passed through Skagway in their way to Canada’s Yukon Territory. The Yukon Gold Rush followed closely the Panic of 1893 when the US economy tanked for five years producing a slew of desperate men seeking their fortunes.
To get to the gold fields most miners took the Chilkoot Trail to the headwaters of the Klondike River at Lake Bennett and boated in. However, the Canadian government required each miner to have a ton of supplies with him so he could survive the winter. Because the pass was too steep for mules and horses, the desperate prospectors turned themselves into pack animals transporting the supplies in on their own backs and making repeat trips.
Of course, the real money was made by those who supplied the miners. Among them was Friedrich Trump, Donald Trump’s immigrant grandfather. Friedrich had come to the States from Germany (not one of the “shithole countries” as described by his grandson) when he was sixteen years old and lived with his older sister who had immigrated a few years earlier. When the gold rush ended in 1899, he went to New York and invested in real estate.
Skagway is only marginally interesting. The real highlight is the train ride on board the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad. The White Pass was the other trail to Lake Bennett. It wasn’t as steep as the Chilkoot Trail so pack animals could be used, but it was longer. The White Pass was also called the Dead Horse Trail because of all the dead pack animals along the route. The railroad is a marvel of engineering and was built in roughly two years 1898-90, but by then the gold rush was ending. Today it is a “heritage” railway primarily for tourists. The views of the mountains and the railroad overpasses are spectacular.
Hidden Gems and Small Ethnic Enclaves
In the afternoon we anchored at Haines, a very small community but a real hidden gem. At one time Haines was the location of Fort Seward, a US Army installation. Serving as a supply depot during World War II, the base was deactivated in 1946 and sold to a group of Haines investors. In October and November Haines is an important stop on the migratory route of the bald eagle.
It is also the home of some great Alaskan Native carvers, most connected with the workshop Alaskan Indian Art. We watched master carver and jeweler Greg Horner while he worked on a large commissioned totem pole. Close by Alaskan Indian Art is Sea Wolf Gallery where Alaskan artist Tresham Gregg offers woodcarvings, silkscreen prints and a nice variety of other art pieces produced both by himself and other local artists. Alaskans, especially those engaged in “subsistence living,” seem to produce a lot of art over the long winter months.
We spent one full day in Hobart Bay at a wilderness camp owned by Allen Marine. The activities included kayaking, hiking, tooling around the trails on a Rough Terrain Vehicle (RTV) and, of course, the DIB in those abominable life preservers.
Noel and I are not the greatest kayakers in the world but we are improving somewhat. The Baranof Dream has an easy launcher for kayaks which really makes the process a whole lot simpler. Uncoordinated and conflicted kayaking can be grounds for more marital discord than politics. Some kayakers sighted bears early in the morning and late in the afternoon, but I was disappointed not to have seen any. We did spot lots of eagles and their formidable aeries. I learned that Old Man’s Beard, the gray lichen that hangs down from tree branches, is a fresh air indicator. Hobart Bay timber sports lots of Old Man’s Beard.
Because of our ship’s size we were able to stop at a couple of small, off-the-beaten-track seaside communities where the large ships can’t come. One of these is Petersburg, a very prosperous fishing town settled by Norwegians. We were treated to some traditional Norwegian folk dancing sweetly performed by children at the Sons of Norway hall. Afterwards, we did a little hiking on a muskeg gravel trail back into the very pleasant town. Muskeg is basically a bog that forms when permafrost, clay or bedrock prevents water from draining out of decomposed plant material.
One of the shops in town was going out of business and had marked all their silver jewelry half off. I managed to score a beautiful bracelet. I was surprised to spot some Haitian metal pieces for sale at a local bookstore. Folks like variety.
The next day we docked at Kake, a predominately Tlingit community. The first person to greet us was Kip, an African-American originally from Seattle who married a Tlingit and was adopted into the tribe. Kip joked that the tribe adopted him because he has big hands and is a good basketball rebounder. He might be called the Scotty Pippin of Southeast Alaska. Kake is small but it has a championship basketball team. Basketball is a huge sport in Alaska. Kip and Leonty, the Tlingit cultural expert from the ship, and others treated us to some traditional Tlingit dancing and drumming.
Kake is where we finally saw lots of bear. We were able to watch them catch salmon from a high bank overlooking a stream near a recently closed down fish hatchery. Bear seem to have free reign of the town and no one is freaked out by them. But I noticed that all the garbage cans have locks on them as do the smoke houses that most homes have. Many of the folks in Kake live in a subsistence economy, that is, they mostly support themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering and a little farming. The woman who guided us around Haines described her life style as “subsistence living.”
Kake is also the home of Mike Jackson, a well-known Tlingit carver, who helped to found and still runs an annual culture camp in Kake where native youth learn about traditional food gathering and processing. In the 1980’s because of high unemployment and the high cost of living, food in particular, Kake had the highest suicide rate of any town in America. That’s when Mike and some other traditional leaders decided to create a culture camp to rebuild the native culture and traditions among its youth. There hasn’t been a suicide in 23 years.
A Humpback Finale
On our last full day on the boat we explored the opposite side of Baranof Island from where we had started ten days earlier in Sitka. This was our second of only two days of sunshine. We did a little more kayaking and everything seemed to be winding down rather uneventfully. There were humpbacks around and you could see their flukes as they dove deeper into the sea but you become blasé to flukes after a while, believe it or not.
Noel and I were enjoying late afternoon libations in the lounge when we noticed unusual activity in the water. There were large flocks of sea birds gathering where a dozen or so humpbacks were diving deep into the water. A crew member shouted “bubble netting.” Not twenty feet away, right outside the windows of the lounge, we saw twelve whales fully breaching like synchronized swimmers with their heads totally out of the water.
What was happening was cooperative feeding. Cooperative feeding occurs when humpback whales spot a school of fish and surround it by swimming in a shrinking circle. Some blow bubbles to create a kind of net while other whales dive deep to drive the fish toward the surface and the remaining humpbacks herd the fish into the bubble net. When they have their prey where they want them, they will suddenly swim upward through the net with their mouths open to swallow thousands of fish in one gulp. Needless-to-say, the sea birds also have a feast. It’s a truly astounding sight. Later we were told by crew members that people come from all over the world hoping to see a sight like this.
We celebrated our last evening on board with champagne and a dessert buffet. It had been a wonderful journey.