Photos By Merrill Witty

Traveler

North to Alaska

Family foursome explores frigid, fabulous northland

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The 6am wakeup call our first morning aboard ship was a bit of a rude awakening, but we dutifully vaulted out of our beds, threw our parkas over our fleecy PJs, and trotted out on deck. It was cold all right, but we were so stunned by the beauty of towering mountains banded in mist we didn’t much notice. (Besides, we had the always-open coffee-cocoa-hot cider station just inside so we had mugs of hot drinks to warm us.)

Our small vessel, The Spirit of Yorktown, had silently cruised an arctic archipelago during the night, to arrive at Misty Fjords National Monument, where glacial cliffs are encompassed by rainforest; where black and brown bears forage for clams at the water’s edge and Harbor seals and Dahl porpoises frolic in frigid emerald seas.
We were in a tributary of Alaska’s Inside Passage—a network of islands and waterways that lies in the Southeast corner of the 49th state. There are no roads here, and the waterways are too narrow for large passenger ships to navigate.

This was morning one of day one of a very special outdoor adventure. My husband Jon and I were accompanied on the trip by our daughter and son-in-law, Claire and Adam. They live in Los Angeles, and opportunities to visit with them for long stretches of time are rare. We thought this Alaska getaway would be a perfect way to spend time together without the distractions of holidays and other relatives competing for their time.

It worked. Besides spending luxurious stretches of quality time with them aboard ship (with only 90 other passengers), we parents were constantly challenged—well, encouraged, anyway—to attempt sporty activities we might not have if we’d been without our 20-somethings.

Kayaking Sitka Sound in the freezing drizzle? No problem! Bering Sea fishing with the former Deadliest Catch crew? Piece of cake. Helicoptering over blinding white glaciers to go dogsledding at Iditarod base camp? Our pleasure!

Not to mention: we rafted through a bald eagle preserve in Haines, learned the symbolism of totem poles from Tsimshian Indians in the tiny town of Matlakatla, and rode a narrow-gauge train through the Yukon—having learned about the Gold Rush in the frontier town of Skagway, where optimistic, if misled, treasure seekers loaded up on supplies before hiking the 100 miles into the Klondike gold fields.

And, always, whales, whales, whales! Is there a more glorious sight in the sea than a breaching humpback? First you spot the plume coming from an underwater spout, then—a few seconds later—the shining black body rounding up from underwater and going back under. Then—in a second—that gigantic tail flipping straight up out of the water.

This is a trip to be taken in late spring or summer—the region is ice-bound the rest of the year—and that’s perfect because this is when the water is warm (relatively speaking) enough for the big beasts to congregate and mate. During the winter they, logically, swim over to Maui.

On our boat, a group of 20 celebrating Grandma’s 70th included family members from 8 to 80. A pair of best friends left husbands behind to celebrate their long friendship by zip-lining through rainforests and hiking old-growth forests on shore excursions along the way. A mom was taking her college-bound son on a celebratory cruise before meeting up with dad at Denali National Park.

My trip wasn’t celebrating anything except my wonderful, loving family in settings of out-of-this-world beauty and wonder.

Cruise West

We used small-ship cruising specialists CruiseWest which offers exploration trips through Alaska’s Inside Passage on small luxe, yet casual, vessels—the only size ships that can navigate the icy Inside Passage. When researching tour companies, I noticed CruiseWest cited as one of the best purveyors of this particular trip in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz—my personal travel bible. Someone once said CruiseWest caters to “the PBS” crowd; I think that’s a good description. Our fellow travelers were highly educated and fascinated to learn everything our guides could tell us. In addition to the two full-time on-ship “exploration staffers” that led programs and lectures, and pointed out all the animals on shore, or just off our decks so that we could scurry back and forth with our cameras and binoculars, we had forest rangers, ecologists, and other experts board ship daily to discuss the cultural history, wildlife, and scenery in each particular area—Frederick Sound and Tracy Arm; Glacier Bay National Park and Lynn Canal. And the towns of Ketchikan and Petersburg; Sitka and Skagway; Haines and Juneau.

See www.cruisewest.com or call 888.851.8133.

The Hunt Spring 2009  Issue

This article was published in Traveler from the Spring 2009 issue.
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