By Roger Allnutt, Travel Writer
ALASKA, USA — The Island Spirit nudges closer to the face of the glacier which, even from 300 yards away, towers over us. Everyone keeps their eyes glued to the wall of ice. Sharp cracks ring out from within the wall of ice until without warning, a large slab breaks free and tumbles into the cold water with a thunderous splash. All aboard were ecstatic at witnessing this dramatic event.
I had joined skipper Captain Jeff Behrens who owns and runs Fantasy Cruises out of Seattle on a small ship cruise in the Alaska waterways. Unlike the many large cruise ships that ply the Alaskan coast during the summer season from May to September, the 130ft long Island Spirit is able to sail into small inlets and coves, and stop at tiny villages that dot the islands of the region of southeast Alaska. It provided a platform for watching the spectacular wildlife that abounds including whales, seals, many different birds and bears.
The Island Spirit takes a maximum of 32 passengers in small but comfortably appointed cabins with en suite facilities. There are large viewing decks and comfortable dining and lounge areas where passengers mingled. The cruise is all-inclusive with meals, pre-dinner cocktails and wine with dinner. The food was top-notch with fresh produce especially fish and salmon a highlight. Cruises are of nine day duration and are usually from Sitka to Juneau (or reverse) although some cruises may have a varied itinerary.
Sitka, which remained the capital of Alaska until 1912, had a long association with Russia from 1799 and during the period when the Russian American company was a big player in the region. In fact the ceremony to transfer Alaska to the United States (sold to the US for a mere $7.2 million) was carried out on Castle Hill at Sitka on 18 October 1867. St Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral, a Russian cemetery, and the Russian Bishop’s House (now a museum) are reminders of this period. The Alaska Raptor Centre is the state’s foremost bald eagle ‘hospital’ and their shows are popular with tourists allowing them to see these magnificent birds up close.
The First Nations people in the region are the Tlingit and the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka has a large collection of totem poles, ceremonial clothing and carvings of this group plus artifacts from Eskimo people.
Petersburg has Norwegian connections and is named after its founder Peter Buschmann who started a salmon cannery and sawmill in 1897. Fishing is still the main occupation of the town’s 3000 plus residents.
There are many small communities dotted around the islands and we visited Tenakee Springs with less than 100 residents. It is really getting away from it all but these places are connected by ferry or float plane to the larger centers.
The main town in the waterways is Juneau, the capital and administrative center of Alaska. Many cruise ships visit each day during the season, the hundreds of passengers pouring off to shop or take local tours. Mendenhall Glacier is close to the town and there are some pleasant rainforest walks on the hills behind the town. The Alaska State Museum is excellent, the Russian Orthodox Church is a reminder of olden days and the view from the top of Mt Roberts Tramway is panoramic.
However it is the varied and magical places in between, both on land and the water, that will remain in my memory for many years. Throughout the trip the ship cruised close to steep escarpments, impressive torrents of water from the many waterfalls cascading down the steep slopes of the snow-capped peaks.
There were many sightings of humpback whales and on a couple of occasions the whales came up quite close to the ship and we were entertained by the whales feeding, their large mouths coming out of the water and also some breaching with their tails slapping the water. On land we saw some bears from a distance while bald eagles perched high on the tree tops.
The highlight of the trip was the time spent in Endicott Arm and Ford’s Terror, narrow inlets off the main Stephens Passage south of Juneau. The latter can only be entered, even by a ship as small as Island Spirit, at certain tides. Inside Ford’s Terror the waterway was serene and calm and many indulged in some kayaking; seals came up close to inspect the human intruders.
As we approached Dawes Glacier at the end of Endicott Arm large chunks of ice floated past, many of them holding seals and their cubs. The colour of the ice was a dazzling pale blue. Watching the glacier was fascinating and cameras clicked repeatedly trying to capture that perfect shot.
On the way to our final destination at Petersburg we stopped briefly at Five Fingers Island where Ed McIntosh from Juneau, accompanied by his two dogs, has spent the past ten summers living and ‘preserving’ the old lighthouse (now automatic) on the island. A labour of love. He welcomed us all especially the cake baked by one of our chefs.
(For more information, schedules and prices, check website www.smallalaskaship.com. Roger Allnutt was a guest of Fantasy Cruises.)