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 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 fourth of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.
The Misty Fjord left Baranof Springs in the morning to head into Frederick Sound for Day 3 of our Inside Passage cruise.
Whales teased us with a water spout here and there in the morning, while we watched the isolated sea otter (or two or three) lazily float by us.
The landscape changed, and sandstone-colored cliffs held a surprise.
Tucked in between the mossy surfaces was a pictograph — a red-pigmented sun painted in a location that left one pondering as to the mechanics of creating that art.
For some period of time, the wind was at a minimum as we traveled across the water, creating large expanses of almost-mercurial cloud reflections. On board, the Misty Fjord’s eight passengers wrote in journals, read books, or quietly chatted as the boat continued its way through the Sound. We embraced the relaxed atmosphere of the small ship, comfortable in our relatively confined space, considerate as we shared stories and company while creating space for solitude, as well.
We passed a raft of sea otters in the kelp near a rocky outcropping ….
…. with seals keeping a watchful eye from shore as we passed by.
After lunch, the captain took us to a small island in Frederick Sound where sea lion haulouts were common. Sure enough, as the boat approached, varying shades of brown in cylindrical shapes could be seen lining the shore and rocky ledges, at first only visible through binoculars or a telephoto lens, and then distinguishable by the naked eye.
As the boat drew closer, the sea lions could see us, too, and let us know our presence had not gone unnoticed. Vocalizing with an increasing flurry of activity could be observed, and the previously stationary lumps on shore sunning themselves became quite animated, with a few pushing off into the water, while the big old bull sat prominently above the crowd, literally barking orders.
We found a calmer spot to anchor on the backside of the island, the scattered haulouts a distance away, to provide a safe entry point for our group of kayaks. After instruction on how to give the sea lions wide berth, we set off to circumnavigate the small “sea lion island.”
Canoeing skills do not directly translate into kayaking skills, so my husband and I often almost immediately fell behind the group a short distance. I am not sure if that was more or less comforting as we watched the sea lion “scouts” or “defenders” of the haulout crew launch themselves noisily in the water, posturing and barking as they swam in coordinated effort toward the kayaks.
We gave the sea lions wide berth, as instructed, and while we were not in any real danger, I would be lying if I said I had no concerns!
When the posse of sea lions would immerse themselves and disappear as a group and then pop up several feet closer, still creating turbulence and noisily barking all the while, we could not paddle fast enough!
We relaxed as we rounded the corner of the island after successfully making it past both haulouts …. one on the main island and the other on a smaller rocky island perch nearby. But just as we assumed all was well, we were greeted by one more round of gang-like sea lions, causing us to push out even further from the shoreline as we finished our circle tour. Even as we continued moving away from the heavily populated haulouts, the irritable barking traveled through the air. They may have been out of sight, but they certainly were not out of mind.
Hobart Bay was our final destination for the evening, where we would dock for the night.
After dinner, we took a short hike uphill to an overlook of the strait beyond the Bay, just as the sun set, the layers of dark pine-covered hills and snow-capped mountains fading from view.
When we returned dockside, the bonfire was going strong, having been warmed up by a couple rounds of s’mores to fuel our hike.
Darkness settled in, reflections on the lake dimming with the light. Stories were told around the campfire, and we bid another adventure-filled day adieu.
This is the third of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.
Blue skies as far as the eye could see, with wispy clouds of white fanning out like the tentacles of the octopus (which was a common motif in the Sitka area). The Misty Fjord untied from the mooring buoy and began Day 2 of its exploration, headed for the Peril Strait.
Humpback whale spouts were spotted soon after launching for the day. The pleasure of a small ship like Misty Fjord, holding no more than 10 passengers (and this cruise, sailing with 8), is that the captain has only a few mandates for the itinerary, with the rest determined by the conditions and sightings of the day. As we spotted whales, the captain slowed the boat and cut the engine, so we could scan the waters and soak in the scene.
The whoosh of a spout echoed across the strait, and the arched back of the whale soon followed. After several rounds of this routine, that magical tail flip would be the reward for patiently watching and waiting, the waters slowly streaming from the edge of the flukes as the large creature again entered the depths below.
With waters glassy and calm on the Peril Strait, the decision was made to put in the kayaks. Four tandem kayaks and a single kayak for our naturalist guide soon were quietly paddling across the surface as whales pushed air noisily through their blowholes from multiple corners of the channel.
A whale would move lazily through the water, sometimes with a tail flip to signal a dive, and sometimes just repeating those undulating movements, all while our group continued making its way along a section of the strait.
While we did not have a firm schedule for the day, we did need to get to Baranof Warm Springs for the evening. After enjoying the peaceful surroundings with the whales for a time, we paddled back to the boat to continue on our way.
Making our way from the Peril Strait into Chatham Strait to the eastern side of Baranof Island, the Misty Fjord detoured into an almost hidden small bay. The bay was home to a spectacular waterfall cascading down the mountainside, spraying us as it reached the bay’s deep waters.
Rounding the corner of the bay back into the strait, we dismissed a lump in the water as a log …. until it moved …. and a harbor seal with its spotted belly did a slow turn into the water, while another whiskered nose peered our way and then dipped below the rippling wake.
We continued southward along Chatham Strait. Mother Nature showed us just some of her many creative facets, using pollen to paint artistic patterns on the mirrored surface of the water.
Our final destination of the night was on the opposite side of Baranof Island from Sitka, along Warm Springs Bay. Baranof Warm Springs is the name of the small community in the bay, but also refers to the naturally occurring mineral hot springs that converges with a rushing river fed by mountain snowmelt.
The Misty Fjord moored alongside a boardwalk-connected dock in Warm Springs Bay. With swimsuits under our hiking clothes, we grabbed beach towels and followed the boardwalk, up the stairs, and along a rocky, tree-rooted path.
At one point, the path opened to a pristine lake with a view that competed with any postcard scene.
The trail led from the lake to a short, technically challenging spur that connected to the hot springs.
The Baranof Warm Springs are not large, but consist of a couple natural pools with rock ledges and temperatures that reportedly range from 102 to 107 degrees Fahrenheit (approximately 38 to 41 degrees Celsius). We carefully navigated the incline down to the pools and scooted in slowly, feeling our way to a level “seat” beneath the hot water, or sitting on the rocky edge with lower legs dangling in the flowing natural bath while our bodies adjusted to the warmth. The sub-spring surfaces were slippery to the touch, and one could go slithering into the deeper center of the pool if one picked the wrong spot as a “seat.”
Many of us brought a cold beer to enjoy as the steam rose around us, even enjoying a little sunbathing while perched on the natural divide between the cold waterfall and hot springs.
For those who wanted to extend the warm springs experience, the public bath house along the boardwalk provided a scenic spot to soak and relax.
After dinner the tide rose high enough for us to take out the kayaks through a narrow channel that opened to a mountain amphitheater. Once you navigated the kayak past the rocky opening, you could float or gently paddle around the enclosed bay. The scenery was just as interesting under the kayaks — water clarity allowed a peek into the underwater world of starfish, anemones, and urchins of different colors and types.
The sky dimmed and we paddled back to the boat to unwind and rest up for what tomorrow might bring.
This is the second of the “Week-Long Alaskan Dream” post series.
“It looked bigger on the website,” I laughed as we unloaded from the Alaskan Dream Cruises courtesy van and walked down the ramp to where Ben, one of the Misty Fjord’s crew, was waiting to greet us. No gangway or long check-in lines; instead we simply stepped off the dock and onto the boat.
After introductions to the captain, first mate, and chef, as well as the naturalist who initially greeted us, the cruise’s eight passengers were oriented and launched seemingly within minutes.
My husband and I checked out our quarters for the week, and decided it was best only one of us unpack and get organized at a time, due to the “cozy” accommodations!
But unpacking could wait, as the shoreline receded and we made our way through Sitka’s classic bays and boat harbor. Cracking open a cold beer, we toasted the beginning of a week escaping the pressures of life and work ….
Before Sitka had even disappeared from view, a commotion in the water caught our eye. A sea lion had caught its dinner — fresh salmon — while a bald eagle soared overhead, viewing the transaction as a treat to be shared. The eagle dive-bombed and tried to snatch the salmon from the sea lion, with the sea lion angrily barking in return, managing to protect its meal as the eagle decided the effort was not worth the return. The victorious sea lion finished its meal preparations by slapping the salmon several times on the water’s surface, ripping open a feast of pink flesh.
Signs of development fading in the distance gave way to alternating snow-capped mountains and evergreen-covered inclines.
Fishing boats would periodically cross paths with our boat, until we found ourselves alone in the pristine passages.
The bow of the Misty Fjord yielded unrestricted views of the waters in front of us. We scanned the surface and shorelines, while soaking in the beauty of the surrounding panoramas.
In the distance, the telltale signal of a whale was spotted … a water spout spraying above the water!
Every few minutes, there was a hint of spray …
or a fin here or there ….
… until finally, that classic slow slip of the tail ….
… as the flukes silently slipped below the surface. Iconic images to welcome us our first day on the water.
Before dinner, we all gathered with Captain Lucas and crew in the wheelhouse, and the crew shared their knowledge of the area along with some of the tentative itinerary plans for the week. The Misty Fjord is nimble and able to adapt its itinerary somewhat to accommodate interests of its passengers and the unique conditions that may present themselves.
Chef Bo grilled fresh salmon for dinner, topped off by peach cobbler for dessert, and wine all around.
Eight strangers were eight friends by the time the first evening on board drew to a close and folks settled in for the night.
The Misty Fjord anchored in a quiet bay as the sunlight faded, with the prolonged Alaskan twilight enveloping us in a blue-purple glow. New adventures were waiting for us in the morning ….