This is the eighth, and final, post of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” series.
Our last full day on the Misty Fjord dawned with heavy mist hanging on the mountain tops, turning the greens and browns of the lower elevations to multiple shades of gray. A hearty breakfast warmed us, as we clustered once again in the cozy dining nook on board.
We had 60 miles to cover before the scheduled disembarkation the following morning. With the longer day of cruising, we were content to settle in the comfortable salon, periodically looking for wildlife as the small ship motored along.
The occasional pod of porpoises appeared, sometimes playing in the wake. Ducks and gulls dotted the water’s surface. And the frequent curious otter or seal would pop up and take a look before disappearing again.
After a full week of raw, uncut beauty and wildlife observations, we were content to lazily read our books, write in our journals, take a short nap, or sit with a cup of hot tea surrounded by the misty wilds of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
This is the seventh of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.
With only two more posts to go, to wrap up the memorable week on the water in Alaska, I almost abandoned the effort; but, I have dusted off the blog, and am committed to seeing it through! I could not leave the journey without sharing the grandeur of Glacier Bay.
We had an early departure from Flynn Cove, hoping to see bear, but only a couple made cameo appearances in the distance on shore. The Misty Fjord continued along Icy Strait into Glacier Bay National Park, radioing ahead to the National Park Service Rangers to announce our arrival, our head count, and intended length of stay.
Passing South Marble Island, the diversity of wildlife provided a new appreciation for the richness of southeast Alaska. The barking of Steller sea lions could be heard even before the eye discerned the details – covering almost every flat (and even not so flat) segment of the island’s shoreline were masses of sea lions of all sizes.
Periodically an enormous bull dominated the section of real estate a particular group occupied. Some tussling between what one assumed were younger males would disrupt the water or erupt in the middle of the group. And when we were downwind from the island, the odor of the sea lions was unmistakable.
Keeping the sea lions company on the island were groups of cormorants and gulls – clustered on the ledges, nests appearing beneath pairs of cormorants who stood like sentinels of the island.
In the surrounding waters, tufted puffins floated amidst the gulls, their bright beaks in contrast to black bodies. If the puffin was spotted in the air, the orange-red legs stood out like a beacon.
Looking down, we watched a sea otter lazily floating in the pollen-filled waters.
Looking up, we were delighted to see mountain goats high above us, nimbly clambering along the precarious edges, and then grazing on spruce tips and lichens. Their white hair or fur stood in contrast to the craggy cliffs behind them.
We moved along, scanning the cliffs as we went, spotting mountain goat after mountain goat in nooks and crannies here and there. We had almost glided by “mountain goat cliff” when one of our fellow boatmates shouted “baby”! It was only a couple of weeks old and still getting its climbing feet under it. The kid cavorted and scrambled near its mother, losing its balance slightly when loose gravel and rock was underfoot. The mother protectively watched while nibbling on vegetation. What is it about baby animals that softens the heart and has one acting as protectively as the mother herself with each trip or stumble?
The Misty Fjord resumed its journey to Margerie Glacier, seeing only a handful of other ships the entire day. Thanks to Glacier Bay National Park regulating the traffic, the opportunity was created to experience this vast wild treasure out of earshot and eyeshot of any other travelers beyond the eight passengers and four crew on our boat for most of our time in the park.
Glacier after glacier dotted the mountains lining our horizon. Some had receded substantially, leaving a wide swath of crushed rock in its former path. Others still pushed slowly down the mountainside dragging dirt and debris with them to the waters below, or sometimes appeared to have stacked without release at the base.
Margerie Glacier is one in the Park that is best known to visitors, often calving during a visit. She had a craggy face that had several sections looking poised to calve, but only a small piece crashed to the waters while we were in view. The bay near Margerie was not as dramatically filled with unique iceberg shapes as it was in Tracy Arm; instead smaller white and clear pieces of ice dotted the landscape.
The sound of rushing water could be heard in the background. A waterfall or cascade tumbled downward on the mountain face opposite Margerie, while the silty runoff of Grand Pacific Glacier, abutting the Canadian border turned the chalky aquamarine water a milky brown.
We put in our kayaks in the bay to paddle to shore, where the glacier running from Canada was shedding its surface, creating a stark landscape from afar. Once you were on shore, the rocky sand beneath your feet unveiled a rich collection of stones from various geological sources – granite speckled in black and white, dark shale-like stone with streaks of quartz and green or copper accents; golden brown veins ran through some, strands of white creating human-like designs in others. Sizes varied from small boulders to the tiniest of pebbles, with several glacial-size deposits dotting the surroundings to remind you of the power of that moving ice floe.
The ”sand” was silt, and soft beneath our feet as we trudged forward with rubber boots from the ship to keep us dry when we waded through shallow rivulets branching off from the main glacial runoff, which moved dangerously fast. The goal of marching to the border was foiled by a wide branch of churning silty water, causing us to call it “good enough” perhaps a quarter-mile from Canada.
While schedules were loose, we still had certain locales that had to be reached within set time ranges, so it was time to move out and bid Margerie adieu.
The chef’s fresh salmon dip with crackers was waiting for us after we paddled back to the boat, and we settled into happy hour with cocktail in hand. Captain Lucas interrupted our post-kayak cocktails with an announcement that the window of “glacial plunge” opportunity was here! We quickly changed into our swimsuits, put on life jackets, and lined up on the back deck of the boat, hand in hand. Before you could second-guess the wisdom of jumping into an ice-filled bay within eyeshot of a glacier, you found yourself airborne. The Captain and another crew member jumped with us, and were the first ones back out of the water to help haul us back on board. That initial shock of near freezing water was something that set off alarm bells in your brain … “I shouldn’t be here!!” … The life jackets caused you to quickly pop to the surface after jumping in, but the numbness caused by the frigid waters almost immediately set in to the extremities, and you understood intimately the danger these waters posed to anyone falling in during a situation of distress. Being immersed in the glacial water would be deadly within minutes for the average human without protective clothing, but taking the plunge with towels and dry clothes within arm’s reach once on board instead created an adrenaline-filled memory.
We closed the evening in Sebre Cove, a peaceful mooring within the wilderness of Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and rested up for our last full day of our week on the Misty Fjord.
This is the sixth of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.
While COVID-19 has thrown 2020 a curve ball, and continues to disrupt in ways that are so difficult for so many, it seemed superficial to pick up where I left off to finish this blog series from our Alaska trip a year (seems like a lifetime …) ago. As I finished editing my photos during these months of more limited activity, it has been a welcome escape and reminder of the wonders of this world that are worth fighting for …. like the wonder of whales.
Wednesday was our fourth full day on the Alaskan Dream’s Misty Fjord, and was scheduled to be a long travel day, navigating Chatham Strait to position us just outside the entrance of Glacier Bay National Park.
Rounding the corner of a peninsula and looking back, we were treated to a grand scene: Point Retreat Lighthouse stood marking the promontory with massive Herbert Glacier dominating the background. The prominence of the glacier in the background despite the distance was a testament to its enormity. The details of the bluish ice field were hazy, creating a dreamlike quality to the scene, the lighthouse starkly contrasting with the clarity of its detail.
Humpbacks had been seen the day before in Freshwater Bay, so our Captain took a slight detour from our planned route to check it out …. what a worthwhile diversion it turned out to be!
As we entered the bay, in the distance we could see multiple spouts and a flurry of activity before the classic arching backs and flipping tails followed.
We clustered on the bow of our small vessel, scanning the open waters around us. The telltale churning circle appeared before a chorus of mouths and snouts emerged, with flailing pectorals showing flashes of white joining the feeding frenzy. The bubble net was created by the whales below, which trapped the herring the whales then swooped up to consume. The humpbacks milled about after the initial circular effort, water spouts following one after the other, undulating dorsal fins side by side, and the seemingly synchronized dive together — 3, 4, 5 at a time, tails slowly turning over and sinking to the water below, signaling the end of another feeding session.
We watched this sequence play out in full several times. Our gasps of awestruck wonder each time the stages of the instinctual dance began anew. Our small group soaked in the spectacle in silence … creating space for the sounds of the whales from below and along the surface to reach us, like an otherwordly exchange of voices.
At one point, the last of the whales’ tails gracefully disappeared, and most of us had set aside cameras and binoculars while we replayed the scene in conversation.
Suddenly, a single whale broke the surface in a breathtaking arch, breaching the water almost completely in a majestic manner, before it landed dramatically, displacing an enormous amount of water in one fell swoop. The bay’s surface reflected the disturbance for an extended time before returning to its even ripples.
Our unplanned hours in Freshwater Bay meant spending most of the rest of the day traveling to position for the remaining two days of our itinerary. Along the way we noticed the periodic group of Dall’s porpoises playing on the waves, or an isolated sea otter or sea lion traveling on its own journey.
Evening brought us to Flynn Cove, and we anchored for the night. The sun was just beginning its descent as kayaks were brought down from the top of the boat. The waters were calm and we pushed off in pairs to explore the cove.
The area was known to be popular with bears, but the unsettling growl that echoed across the water, in the way that only sounds can in the quiet of evening, was not a bear — instead it came from one of two elephant seals who were surprised by a couple of the kayaks. Our naturalist scared them off and the rest of the evening paddle was uneventful.
Before returning to the boat for the night, most of us beached our kayaks and took a short walk across the point from Flynn Cove to where we could see Icy Strait, just as the sky shifted from gold to pinks and blues, signaling that twilight had begun.
On the beach, faint bear tracks were seen, mixed with signs of birds and smaller animals. While I did not hear it, several in our group heard the low grumble which was an almost indescribable guttural sound that was unmistakably bear. It was our signal to leave.
With a short paddle back to the boat, our day of wonder came to an end.
This is the fifth of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.
The starting of the Misty Fjord’s engines at 5:00 a.m. roused me awake, but the gentle movement of the boat starting on the day’s journey quickly lulled me back to sleep for another couple of hours. It was hard to believe we were beginning our 4th day of the trip (and only our third full day) – every day had held an entire trip’s worth of memories, and today was no different.
Once I rolled out of bed, a few of us gathered in the lounge area off of the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee, slowly greeting the morning. Then one of our shipmates popped in from the deck with one word — “Iceberg” — and the energy immediately changed. We excitedly chattered while pulling on rain gear to head to the bow.
Similar to capturing the images of one’s first child, the first iceberg of the trip was the subject of a multitude of photos from different angles, trying to preserve the memory without dulling the details. The layers of gray mist painted a rich yet monochromatic backdrop for a pop of sculptured blue floating in isolation, soon joined by others. Small bergs seemed to gather close, and their frequency and size grew, creating an increasingly diverse landscape as we pushed forward up Tracy Arm to the Sawyer Glaciers.
The fjords leading to the Sawyer Glaciers vary in their navigability. When we arrived in the morning, the fjord branching toward the North Sawyer Glacier was more open, so the captain veered in that direction first. When we reached the north head of Tracy Arm, we were treated to a private showing of the wall of aged ice. Gunshot-like sounds filled the air to announce a shifting of ice, quickly followed by collapse of a section of the massive glacier face into the bay, much to all of our amazement.
With calm waters and minimal ice debris, the captain deemed it safe enough to put in the kayaks. We were cautioned to maintain a safe distance from the glacier as we explored the bay. When a glacier calves, the ice chunks can become dangerous projectiles and create hazardous post-calving waves.
Cascades and waterfalls were scattered about on the towering cliff walls surrounding us. We paddled toward the base of a waterfall and pushed at the smaller pieces of ice as we passed by. One quickly came to understand the danger that a sizeable iceberg poses to a fiberglass boat hull, as a tap of the paddle was met with incredible resistance, even on the seemingly smallest of ice chunks. The old phrase “tip of the iceberg” is accurate – a small mound of ice above the water’s surface is often misleading, given the large mass that is connected beneath it.
Sitting in a kayak at the water’s level, we felt incredibly insignificant in the most awe-inspiring of ways as the untouched beauty of the mineral-infused waters, blue mosaic glacial face, and mist-covered peaks of the imposing fjord walls enveloped us in their collective beauty.
Once the kayaks were loaded back on to the Misty Fjord, the boat worked its way back along Tracy Arm to the fork leading to the even more impressive South Sawyer Glacier. The ice floes were thicker in the fjord passage, causing the captain to slowly zig-zag between the icebergs. It was like wandering through a sculpture garden, with each angle of the dramatic frozen masses revealing a different creation. Some were a rich blue, others a milky white, while yet others were largely clear.
On the expanses of flat ice were pairs of seals, mother and baby, lounging safely together. As the boat slowly navigated the passage, seals quietly slid off the ice into the water, with the babies close on the tail of their mothers. Watching the mother seals cautiously observe the ship and determine when to instruct their offspring to dive, I felt my own protective motherly instinct stir, a feeling that often emerged while just scratching the surface of the stunning wilderness that is Alaska — a fierce desire to protect this untouched land for generations of seals and other wildlife to live without threat of harmful development and unnecessary environmental dangers.
The lunch call went out and South Sawyer Glacier loomed closer. The chef plated salmon fillets with rice, and we abandoned our cozy dining nook for lunch with the best kind of view.
We gazed at that living, moving piece of ice for some time. It periodically popped and groaned, and then rewarded us a couple of times by calving a piece of ice that fell dramatically into the water below. The harbor seals rested on the nearby ice fields, unfazed by the spectacular scene that left us gasping in wonderment.
The Misty Fjord had few scheduling pressures, but we did need to refuel and resupply the next morning, just outside Juneau at Auke Bay. We began the trip back down Tracy Arm, with icebergs supporting our happy hour that afternoon. Featured drink?! The glacier-ita!
Perhaps it was a romanticized view, but the glacial ice seemed to have a special glow about it, adding a special touch to cocktails that day.
We moored in a quiet bay for the night, with the lights of Juneau in the distance. The skiff transported us to the shore of a rocky beach to stretch our legs and skip stones into the peaceful waters before turning in for the evening.
The bay reflected a warm pink sky that was slowly consumed by the blue of twilight, as the fierce golden glow of the sun set on the snow-covered peaks.
This is the first of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.
We gathered in the hospitality room for Alaskan Dream Cruises in Sitka, Alaska, four couples from Michigan, New York City, Minnesota, and Australia. Introductions were made and we sized up our shipmates for the upcoming week. While the Misty Fjord finished its preparations for the Inside Passage cruise departure that afternoon, we were invited to join Alaskan Dream staff on a morning hike in the nearby Tongass National Forest.
The day before had been rainy and gray, so it seemed a good omen that the skies cleared and sun shone as we loaded into the van to hike the Mosquito Cove loop together. Making small talk and taking turns to point out interesting observations, we climbed timbered steps in the temperate rain forest, stepping carefully past piles of bear scat, while large slugs slowly made their way across the trail.
We learned that only in the cleanest of atmospheres can a certain moss grow — usnea or “Old Man’s Beard” — a gossamer-like thread dancing in the slightest of breeze on the spruce and hemlock branches. Old Man’s Beard reminded one of the delicate balance within Nature, and John Muir’s quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
We emerged from the deeply-shaded forest to a cove at low tide, greeted by a world that is revealed periodically as the water recedes: broken shells left behind by ravens and other creatures seeking morsels from within; tiny crabs scurrying under rocks; slow-moving snails carrying smaller travelers on their backs. A person could miss the sub-plots as the allure of the main landscape story drew the eye to the larger vistas across the bay.
Looping back to the trailhead, the clear blue skies yielded unobstructed views of the dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe.
We walked the remaining trail back to the van, to return to Sitka before embarking on our cruise adventure later that afternoon.
Conversation already flowed more freely, and a casual, comfortable vibe was established among our new travel companions after sharing the meditative beauty of the forest together.