My personal account of the intriguing Uncruise Alaska.
I stop in my tracks and hold still, watching him watching me. I can hear my own breathing, fast and focused, and the sound of droplets falling into the deep Chuck River. The rest of the group, all five of them, are almost out of sight and I suddenly appreciate just how alone I am in this quiet, exposed wilderness.
A few more heads rise out of the water, their unblinking eyes gazing, watching, waiting. Eventually, one of us will have to move, but for now there’s just me, my kayak and these seals, drinking in the silence.
Southeast Alaska is wild country alright. This panhandle of land, splintered into a devilish jigsaw puzzle, has no connecting road or rail network and most flights must land on water. Boats, be they cruise ships, yachts, skiffs or humble kayaks form the backbone of the region’s transport. But even they have to contend with fog, icebergs and frost.
“My parents are making their last fuel and food run of the season,” says John, the captain of a jet boat company that operates along the Stikine River. “After that, the ice’ll stop them leaving home for about five or six months.”
“Yep,” says the hotel owner at the idyllic Yes Bay. “In a few weeks, folk won’t be able to get around so much, so it’ll just be the family here. Home schoolin’ and such. And checkin’ the place for bears.”
My guidebook describes southeast Alaska as “easily accessible,” from which I can only assume that the author must live in the North Pole. Even the salmon suffer here, as they return in droves to the freshwater rivers from the sea, most dying before they reach their final destination.
Our vessel, however, is ready for adventure. While the girth of the giant cruise ships confines them to the wide stretches of water, our small cruise ship can duck and dive, jib and jive into the creeks, rivers and coves of Alaska’s Inside Passage.
We started in Juneau, southeast Alaska’s state capital and a town that resembles a watery wild wild west. Barely an hour later, we were alone.
“People talk about going back to the ‘the real world,’” says Kevin, our onboard biologist. “When they talk about their city jobs and computer screens and iPhones. But this is the real world. Here, livin’ in the outdoors. There’s nothing unreal about it.”
So he may say, but when the green haze of the Northern Lights filled the star-spangled sky, I couldn’t be sure. So, too, when the Alaskan sunset turned the sky a billowing purple, leaving the spray from the humpback whales illuminated in the air.
Frederick Sound, just south of the Chuck River, is the feeding ground for the largest concentration of humpback whales in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as being completely, unfairly beautiful. The whales move with a poetic slowness, the dorsal fin of the hump appearing first, then teasing, holding, holding, before plunging underwater to allow the tail fin to appear.
For most of this journey, we’re free to kayak and paddleboard at whim but, unsurprisingly, not when there are twenty or so whales nearby.
Rules also apply in Le Conte Bay, where instead of sealions and salmon, chunks of ice bob up and down around us. Our skiff zips across the bay, drawing us so close that we rest beneath the shelves of iridescent ice, looking up to see the sunshine filtered through layers of frozen blue bubbles.
At Le Baird glacier, the ice is more strongly wedded to the land. The skiffs unload us and we trek across this alien landscape towards the glacier itself. Luminous lime-green moss covers the terminal moraine, a springy introduction to the boulders that sprout up like nuclear-powered mushrooms.
Just before the glacier, we reach the mud, perhaps Alaska’s biggest surprise. Never did I imagine I’d be excited by mud, talking about it, filming it and jumping on it. But this is no ordinary mud. Glittering with gold and silver deposits, its surface wobbles like the skin on school dinner custard and we bounce around like Lilliputian figures at an arctic dance rave.
Around the corner, lives UNESCO’s favourite and not so subtly named, Glacier Bay. In fact, the English-speaking settlers stuck to the basics when it came to handing out names. After Glacier Bay, there’s Ideal Cove and then Misty Fjords, places teeming with salmon, starfish and fresh berries and the hope, the chance, the possibility of seeing a moose or bear.
We get close, very close, during another kayak excursion, when we stop for a break on the shore. Standing on the sinking mud, wet soil still flecked with the memory of the gold rush, we see them: a procession of scratchy paw prints, no more than ten minutes old.
“Footprints that size,” says Kevin, nodding slowly, “belong to a grizzly. That bear can’t have gone far.”
I scour our surroundings: half thrilled, half terrified.
A crescent of temperate rainforest surrounds us, with trees tight together like soldiers and a salmon-rich stream emptying out into deeper, almost syrupy water. If the bears are watching, we can’t see them. It’s only later, as daylight fades that we glimpse a shy and sooty black bear coming to the water’s edge to feed.
Like everything else in Alaska, the bears’ lives revolve around water, the element that binds this region together. Water frozen into icebergs, water in the spray of humpback whales and water for the kayaks, both fibreglass and the traditional sort, carved by the local Tlingit people.
As the cruise draws to an end, there seems only one way left to embrace the water of southeast Alaska, at least according my fellow travellers, anyway. Before long I find myself standing on the top deck, inexplicably holding a rope in my hands and getting ready to take a jump, a running jump, into the air before falling into the glacial water that surrounds us.
The rope swings me forwards and I fly through the air, with plenty of time to think about what it means to be in southeast Alaska. Wildlife, landscape, resilience and the power of nature.
I hit the water and travel deep below the surface, a numbness taking hold of my body while my insides scream with shock. Another word surfaces once I do, my lungs gasping, my senses alive, visions of pine trees, rocks and low clouds spinning around my mind. Beyond all the swear words, I hear an unmistakeable cry…
I hear the sound of adventure.
Disclosure – I travelled with Un-Cruise Adventures. As ever, as always, i kept the right to write what I like.
What do you think about Alaska? Would you go? Would you take a small ships cruise like the Uncruise?
What do you think real life is?! Let me know in the comments below.