By Kevin Check ’96, MPA’03
Breathtaking, awe-inspiring, unspoiled, massive, remote… the list of adjectives describing Southeast Alaska goes on and on. While seeing images of Alaska on television or in postcards provides glimpses of the natural beauty of the place, it does not fittingly convey the impressive splendor that can only be experienced by admiring it in person. As I read John Muir’s “Travels in Alaska” on the plane ride to Sitka, I envisioned the landscape that would be the backdrop of our journey in the coming days. Even Mr. Muir’s elegant prose, I would soon discover, could not fittingly convey what we were about to see.
As our group of 24 Badgers, along with our Orbridge expedition leaders and traveling companions from Dartmouth, North Carolina State, Case Western Reserve and Georgetown gathered in Sitka, we were treated to a performance by a talented group of local dancers. This would be the first of several opportunities to experience and learn more about the Tlingit culture throughout the week. We were especially fortunate to have Lee Vale, our ship’s Mr. Everything, on board. As a native Alaskan and Tlingit himself, Lee provided a very personal perspective on the culture, history and language of his people, and how he is working to preserve them for future generations. His storytelling abilities are second to none.
Following the dance performance, our group boarded a passenger ferry to shuttle us to the ship that would be our home for the next several days, the Admiralty Dream. As if the spectacular sights we would see from the ship weren’t enough, the incredible food (especially Sunshine’s desserts) we enjoyed on board was truly first class. Unfortunately, my nightly meals of fresh salmon, crab legs, strawberry shortcake and crème brûlée have not continued since returning to Wisconsin.
We’d been told to expect rain during some (or all) of our journey. This was evidenced by the fact that we were asked to provide our preferred rain suit and boot sizes when filling out our traveler information forms in preparation for the trip. By some stroke of luck (call it Badger karma), we had a week of virtually rain-free weather, clear skies and daytime temperatures near 70 degrees. I’m certain that a little rain would not have made the sights any less spectacular, but the rainlessness sure made the trip more comfortable.
In this traveler’s opinion, there is no better way to see the wonders of Southeast Alaska than from a small ship. Traveling in this way provides for an up-close-and-personal experience that is not soon to be forgotten. Over the course of the 674 nautical miles we traveled on the Admiralty Dream, we encountered a bevy of bergs, birds and beasts.
During one of our nearly nightly visits with chief mate Ken Adams in the wheelhouse, we were taking in the serenity of the Alaska dusk, watching a pod of humpback whales as they put on a show in the distance. Suddenly, there were shouts and squeals of excitement (and slight concern) from chief mate Ken and the handful of travelers in the wheelhouse when one pod of humpbacks decided to swim directly under the boat. It is a spectacular thing to see the whales’ flukes and fins at a distance. It is a completely indescribable experience to see them (at 40 tons each) directly underneath your boat while you are looking down at them from only a few feet above. At the time, it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have much time to think about it. Looking back, I realize it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime encounter experienced by very few.
One of my personal goals for the trip — shared by several of my traveling companions — was to see a grizzly bear. After several days of scanning the beaches from the deck of the ship with my binoculars while cruising through the icy waters, I had yet to see a grizzly. Bald eagles, black bears, the previously-mentioned humpback whales, sea otters, seals, porpoises, puffins and sea lions (not to mention hundreds — more like thousands — of jumping salmon) had all been checked off my list, but still no grizzlies.
On that sunny, Friday afternoon, three groups of hikers shuttled from the Admiralty Dream on a Demaree Inflatable Boat (called a DIB by us seafaring types) to the shores of Baranoff Island for a hike. Having decided to take the “long” (approximately six-mile) hike, our group of around 15 departed first. After ascending and descending several hills in the dense forest, we rounded a bend in the trail to see the hand of our guide, Ryan, in the air, indicating that we should stop. Looking down to the rushing stream, we saw a mother grizzly and her cub splashing, fishing and playing. This was it: I was finally getting to see that grizzly! And, watching the mother and cub from only about 50 yards away with no real obstacles between us made it even more exhilarating. We watched them for several minutes, with the mother looking straight at us many times with her nose in the air. She clearly knew we were there, but apparently decided that we were not a threat or simply didn’t care. Whatever her reason for deciding not to charge us, I’m thankful she did not, and even more thankful to have experienced something so downright cool!
Over the course of our journey, we also saw several glaciers and visited many other spectacular places, including Glacier Bay and the magnificent Tracy Arm. On the days leading up to our Tracy Arm visit, many of the ship’s crew members told us it was their favorite spot. After visiting it, I can see why. With its narrow channel and sheer cliffs, it is the perfect microcosm to demonstrate the enormity of the Alaskan landscape. The deep blue of the glacier ice and bergs is so unusual, and we witnessed some spectacular (and loud) calving events as the glaciers continued their constant evolution. I feel especially lucky to have kayaked in Tracy Arm while taking in the sights from water level among the icebergs, and coming face to face with harbor seals. That night, I even enjoyed a Bergie Bit martini made with ice plucked straight from the icy waters of the fjord.
Although most of our journey was spent at sea, we did spend a day in the bustling, capital city of Juneau. On the day we arrived, several large cruise ships (each carrying 3,000–4,000 passengers) were in port. So, needless to say, the town was abuzz with tourist activity. Even with all of those people around, a quick glance into the distance revealed that the wilder, untamed parts of Alaska were not far away. An interesting fact is that there are no roads leading into or out of Juneau (population 32,000), and there are only 48 miles of road in the entire city. If you go, be sure to ride the Mount Roberts Tramway for an expansive view of the city and beyond.
There is so much more to say about Southeast Alaska, but no additional words can truly do it justice. It is simply a place that you must see in person to truly appreciate. So, in closing… to the ship’s crew, my wonderful fellow travelers and most of all, the wild and wonderful state of Alaska, I say “Gunalchéesh” — thank you.