Exploring Southeast Alaska
Taking the Slow Boat
Just the word evokes visions of blue-green glacial ice, crystal-clear water and an almost primitive world. Alaska creates images of bears fishing for salmon along pristine shorelines, rustic fishing villages carved out of the wilderness, secluded hot spring baths, and countless spectacular, towering waterfalls. Then there are the whales, the gentle giants whose grace and majesty can only truly be appreciate by observing them close at hand within their natural habitat.
To intimately experience Alaska, there is nothing to compare with a small-group micro-tour exploring the coastline, inlets, and fjords of Southeast Alaska for ten days aboard a converted 62-foot commercial fishing boat, the Home Shore.
Owner Jim Kyle, former commercial fisherman and Captain of the authentic 54-year-old wooden vessel, had modified his boat to provide comfortable accommodations for vacationing explorers seeking an intimate, tactile experience with Alaska. The Home Shore accommodates a maximum of six adventuresome travelers willing to forego the traditional cruise liner amenities of soaking in swimming pools, visiting onboard pedicure salons, or foraging the gaming tables.
Alaska on the Home Shore six-day cruises begin and end at the docks in Sitka, Alaska. Sitka is a thriving town nestled midway along the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. An authentic Alaskan town, it offers a number of onshore attractions to warrant several days of exploration. Not providing the expansive docks required by the cruise lines, tourism does not dominate Sitka's economy or character. As a tourist destination, Sitka's best attractions are its adherence to its historical roots and its loyalty to remain an active commercial fishing port.
Once aboard the Home Shore, you quickly gain a sense for what it’s like to live and work in spaces designed to provide multifunctional efficiency. At the same time, you have to appreciate the quality of workmanship Kyle and his family, most notably his son and First Mate Ben, imbued in converting their boat into a comfortable, cozy base for exploring.
After settling aboard the Home Shore and meeting your fellow adventurers, you begin to explore your new surroundings. For most, going up the narrow spiral staircase from the main level to the pilot house is the first adventure. While easy to ascend when the boat is tied steady to the dock, you consider the climb when the boat sways while underway. Yet, by the end of a few days, you’ll not only easily go up to the pilot house, but also with one or two cups of coffee in hand, without spilling a drop.
The pilot house offers an enclosed warm and dry vantage point from which there is an almost unobstructed 360-degree view. The authentic, large, spindled oak steering wheel dominates the center of the console with its otherwise modern hardware and electronics, including GPS and a satellite phone. At the rear of the pilot house, a door opens to the upper deck – one of several great locations for sightseeing and a favorite location for photographers.
While underway, Kyle is quick to let you "take the wheel." Under close supervision, you’ll quickly discover how it feels to steer a 51-ton boat. While it's not like driving an agile ski boat, it is fairly quick to respond to subtle turns of the wheel.
Back on the main level is the galley (kitchen) in which gourmet meals are prepared. Lest you think that a small galley implies unappetizing and skimpy meals, a description of a typical dinner should squelch such fears. Gathered around the dining table prior to the entree being served, you nibble on a loaf of crusty golden French bread while enjoying a glass of premium Merlot. The entree consists of fresh vegetables lightly sautéed in lemon butter atop a grilled filet of freshly-caught salmon with a side of herb-flavored spaghetti squash embellished with spears of steamed fresh asparagus. For those who still have room, a slice of freshly baked homemade pie bursting with tart flavors of strawberries and rhubarb cap off the sumptuous dinner. The dining area adjoining the galley also serves as the primary gathering place for conversation and reading from the library of books on, what else, Alaska.
Just forward of the galley/dining area is the head (bathroom and shower) for the two crew members and one or two guests who choose the fo'c'sle (an abbreviated version of forecastle, pronounced FOWK-sul) berth area below the main deck as their accommodations. Captain Kyle has separate quarters nearer the pilot house. The fo'c'sle was previously occupied by the crew when the boat was used for commercial fishing. It has since been spruced up and made homier with fresh paint, privacy curtains, and a reading light for each berth.
You can exit the galley and dining area towards the rear of the boat onto a large open deck space. Formerly this was the working area where fish were hauled onboard in large nets. Now it is a place to unfold your lounge chair for reading or just enjoying the passing coastline. It also is where either First Mate Ben or Captain Jim will grill the king salmon you caught earlier in the day.
The Home Shore recently added two new staterooms for four guests on the back portion of the main deck. These staterooms offer individual seating areas and share a common shower and toilet facility. The stateroom roof provides another vantage point for photography, eagle and whale watching, and viewing passing cargo barges and fiery sunsets.
On the first evening, not far north of Sitka, Captain Jim asks if anyone wants to photograph a sunset. Who doesn't like sunsets? With an enthusiastic response from all, he makes a slight detour off course to a position that several minutes later presents the most spectacular and inspiring sunset of the trip. Unlike in the “Lower 48” states where the critical time to photograph a sunset lasts one to three minutes, in Alaska the critical light may last up to an hour, depending on the summer month. This gives everyone opportunities to both photograph and experience these extended evening spectacles.
The sunset event helps illustrate one of the advantages of micro touring, being able to change plans and course to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. The tour leader, usually the captain, has extensive knowledge of the area that can only be gained from many years of firsthand experience. Captain Jim has accumulated over 40 years in these Alaskan waters during his commercial fishing career, and his guests are the benefactors.
Alaska Up Close
Every visitor to Alaska wants to see a glacier up close. There are several locations in Southeast Alaska that offer views of glaciers. Sawyer Glacier, about 45 miles south of Juneau, is located at the terminus of Tracy Arm fjord and possibly provides the best opportunity for close-up viewing. One of many glaciers that are fed by the Juneau ice field, Sawyer Glacier produces some of the area's largest icebergs.
The glacier is reached by traveling approximately 26 miles through the winding canal that earlier glacier activity created when carving out the fjord. The sides of the fjord are bordered by smooth, sheer granite walls rising straight up from the water's surface 2,000-4,000 feet overhead, providing towering launch ramps for numerous cascading waterfalls.
Approaching the face of the glacier, Home Shore carefully maneuvers through the ice field to within approximately 100 yards. Achieving an optimal viewing position, the captain turns off the engine. Insulated by miles without human activity, "deafening stillness" becomes reality. Only the sounds of creaking, groaning, and cracking ice can be heard.
From the forward deck of Home Shore, about six feet above water level, the immense scale of the glacier’s face suggests you can reach out and touch the beauty of the vast emerald-blue glacier surface framed by the grey-granite fjord walls on either side, blue sky above and water below. Beyond the glacier face extends the ice field back towards Juneau, the state’s capitol.
That night is spent anchored in a small, protected cove back up the channel, where, considering our otherwise Spartan circumstances, another extravagant dinner is served. Returning to the glacier face the following morning, the weather is almost ideal. The sun backlit the glacier and ice flows, passing its light though densely packed, airless, pristine, aqua-blue ice only found in glaciers.
Everyone gets their still and video cameras ready to record possible calving of ice from the glacier face. Unfortunately, calving is not one of the prescheduled events and there is a bit of a wait, with growing anticipation. When it happens, the sound from the mansion-sized mass of ice cracking away from the glacier's face, sliding down several hundred feet, and plunging thunderously into the sea echoes off the surrounding fjord’s walls, adding a magnificent and unexpected crescendo to an already stunningly visual experience.
Kayak Explorations – What else is there to look forward to? Exploring the ice flows to within touching distance from one of the ship’s kayaks. For a short time, a mother harbor seal and her pup played within the ice field, apparently unconcerned for their visitors’ presence. While exciting enough to view the multi-sculptured blocks of ice standing on the boat's deck six feet above the water, it is quite humbling to be beside them at water level. Then, even relatively small ice chunks take on iceberg proportions.
The Home Shore has the area to itself for over 24 hours. However, as we depart back through Tracy Arm to its entrance, a larger excursion boat speeds by, racing to get its tourists to the face of the glacier for their one-hour viewing. A couple of hours later at the fjord entrance, the same boat passed us, racing to get back to Juneau before nightfall. There is something to be said about taking the slow boat, wherever you go.
Land Excursions – Carried on board Home Shore is an outboard skiff (boat), as well as several one- and two-person sea kayaks. Ben is a very accomplished kayaker and will teach anyone who wants to learn the fundamentals. During the course of the adventure, the skiff is used to transport everyone to shore for several explorations along the shoreline and inland. Two contrasting visits are the White Sulfur Hot Springs and an abandoned gold mining camp.
The hot springs are located within the West Chichagof-Yakobi Island Wilderness Area. Using the skiff to reach shore, it’s an easy mile-long trek through lush Alaskan forest to the springs which overlook an inlet some distance below. Soaking in a hot spring pool is always nice. Soaking in a hot spring looking out over the rich-green Alaskan coastline with soaring snow-capped mountain crags as their backdrop is an experience you hold forever!
The mining camp on Chichagof Island extends about two football fields in an area where the structures on the shoreline are easily accessible. Mother Nature has long been attempting to claim the camp structures inland. She's pried open cupboards, peeled away flooring, and blanketed many buildings and abandoned machinery with vines and scrub growth. The effect adds a primitive, yet artistic flavor to each structure we visit. The equipment the miners abandoned also provides some insight into how the camp functioned.
Whale Watching – It seems every day offers a distinctive and memorable experience. An afternoon spent with whales is very special. There are no guarantees where or when whales will appear or if they will perform their acrobatic pirouettes; however, our captain correctly predicts they are nearby in a semi-protected bay. We find two gray whales feeding about 100 yards off the shoreline, within easy viewing distance. Captain Jim holds the Home Shore in the center of the cove while the whales' feeding activity takes them in a circle around our position. We observe one whale lying on its side while it flaps its fluke on the water's surface as it moves in a tight circle. His slapping panics the excitable fish below to swim into a compact ball or boil. The whale then dives under the boil to surface within their midst with its gigantic mouth wide open, entraining hundreds of morsels in just a few moments. There are no checkout lines in the ocean!
Remote Pelican – Of the several ports the Home Shore visits for fresh supplies, Pelican stands out as being the most colorful and in keeping with the off-the-beaten-track flavor of our adventure. Pelican is a tiny (0.6 square mile) fishing village approximately 70 miles north of Sitka situated on tidal flats along the banks of the Lisianksi Inlet in the northwest corner of Chichagof Island. Pelican is as authentic as it gets. The village is remote enough to be excluded by even the regional excursion boats. To reach Pelican, people travel on the Alaska Marine Highway ferries or charter a float plane. The moderate year-round climate, a high of 62 in the summer with a low of 21 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, is unexpected for its location. The surrounding water significantly moderates the otherwise harsh winter temperatures.
Pelican’s remoteness preserves the lifestyle of the people living in an isolated section of the somewhat isolated state. Part of Pelican's unique charm is the manner in which its buildings are constructed on the elevated waterfront boardwalk, standing on shoreline pilings driven 20 feet into the ocean floor. This accommodates the large fluctuation in water levels due to the tides. This is not your typical tourist haven. Pelican's harbor is dominated by a fish processing plant and commercial fishing docks. Everyone's activity, except possibly the postmaster's, is dependent on the commercial fishing trade.
Advantages of Micro-Touring – The experiences and memories of Pelican, the hot springs, Letyua Bay, and many of the other locations would not be possible if not for schedule and route flexibility, the small size of the Home Shore, and its captain’s extensive knowledge. Additionally, the small number of passengers provides easy and direct access to the tour leader and his assistants. While there is a general schedule for the ten days, it is always open for modification to take advantage of the ever-changing climate, presence of wildlife and sea life, or the desire to make onshore explorations. Because the boat anchors at night, no one misses any of the great "ooh" and "ahh" opportunities during night passages.
Other Options – Tourists wishing to experience coastal Alaska have many options, each offering varying degrees of intimate contact with the state's culture and its wilderness. One option is to travel on traditional multi-thousand passenger cruise liners, which often include a run up the Inside Passage as part of their package. The biggest drawback with viewing the Alaskan coastline on cruise ships is that far too much of the passage occurs during sleeping hours, meals, or when taking advantage of the ship's other amenities. Also, the size of these ships prevents deviating from the traditional routes, and schedules cannot be altered to take advantage of rare viewing opportunities.
A compromise option is to book passage on one of the many excursion vessels that provide trips of one to several days. These excursion vessels carry between 20 and 100 passengers, and the knowledgeable operators provide more direct exposure to and insight into the Alaskan environment than that provided by the cruise liners.
A third option is to book passage on one of the Alaska Marine Highway ferries that puts in at many of the ports along the Inside Passage. A See Alaska Pass makes it possible to get on and off the ferries when you want to stay to explore any of its ports of call. They also offer inexpensive accommodations, and some allow “campers” to pitch their tents on deck. You can read about traveling on the AMH ferries here.
At the end of my travels on the Home Shore, I extended my Alaskan adventure by booking passage from Sitka down the Inside Passage to Bellingham, Washington, on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry. This form of travel offers another insight into living in Alaska, as the AMH is the water taxi for the state and provides travel and freight service where airlines do not.
Alaska on the Home Shore: www.HomeShore.com
Alaska, general tourist information: www.alaskavisitorinformation.com
Sitka, Alaska: www.sitka.org
Pelican, Alaska: www.pelican.net
Alaska Airlines: www.alaskaair.com
Alaska Marine Highway: www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs
Story and photos copyrighted by Larry Padgett