Dawes Glacier at the end of Endicott Arm is popular for kayaking and skiff rides among the icebergs. © Eric Lindberg
Originally published in January/February 2016
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The Alaskan brown bear is adept at fishing for migrating salmon along the coastal streams of southeastern Alaska. © Eric Lindberg
Slowly navigating passages too narrow or shallow for large ships, the captain of a small vessel got this experienced cruise passenger as close to authentic coastal Alaska as any visitor could hope to get—whether observing from ship’s deck, or in kayak, or on foot.
By Eric Lindberg
It’s midday on Baranof Island and I’m standing within a stone’s throw of Alaska’s apex wild predator. Across the stream, three hungry brown bears hunker at water’s edge and snag migrating salmon with dagger-like claws. Flipping the wriggling fish onto rocks, they tear off a few bites before turning back to the stream for more. Between courses they glance up and stare in my direction. Despite their poor eyesight, bears have an excellent sense of smell and I’m clearly on their radar, but today they’re focused on the easy meals swimming upstream. After an hour of gluttony, the bruins wobble away with swollen bellies, leaving me woozy with adrenaline. It’s been an edgy afternoon.
Few roads or trails traverse this remote area of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Like most visitors, I’ve come here by water. But unlike the majority who motor through on enormous cruise ships carrying thousands of people, I’m on a small vessel. The Safari Explorer, part of the Un-Cruise Adventures’ fleet of small expedition ships, carries only 36 passengers. Comfortable and well-equipped, the Safari Explorer with its shallow draft easily navigates narrow straits and anchors in small coves, going to secluded places where a standard cruise ship would never dare.
More bears join the salmon buffet, and at one point 13 of them prowl the stream. This bear gathering spot isn’t on any cruise line itineraries; large ships couldn’t fit into this anchorage. Encounters like this one, combined with a slower pace and the chance to venture beyond standard cruise routes, are what led me to this trip with Un-Cruise.
Thirty minutes out of Juneau, our cell phones sputter and we lose contact with the outside world. It’s our first evening on the water and Captain Sean Manske describes the week’s itinerary as we explore the ABC islands: Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof. “These islands have a higher density of bears than anyplace on the planet so we’ve got a pretty good chance of spotting some,” Manske says. “The more eyes on deck watching for wildlife, the more we’ll find. If you see something cool, let us know so we can check it out.”
He pauses for a moment and grins. “In other words, we brake for whales.”
That evening harbor porpoises escort us up the strait and in the July twilight we spot our first humpback whales. It’s a sign that we’re crossing into a wilder place. Darkness comes around midnight as we slip into Icy Strait and move north toward Glacier Bay National Park.
By morning we’re deep in Glacier Bay. The surrounding country feels almost Arctic. Beyond the stark granite cliffs rising from water’s edge are countless snow-covered mountains. Glaciers spill down from sprawling icefields, their frozen snouts suspended at water’s edge. Down here on the glassy bay, puffins and otters bob in small groups and watch us pass. After last night’s gently wooded hills, this landscape is brash. Ahead awaits even more formidable territory.
A mile wide and rising 250 feet above the water, Margerie Glacier is popular with cruise ships for the deep-water parking close to the glacier face. A large liner is leaving as we pull in, and for the next two hours we’ve got front-row views of the towering wall of blue and white ice. A loud bang breaks the stillness, followed by a roar as a huge ice chunk calves off the glacier face and tumbles into the sea. The resulting wave ripples toward us and a minute later it gently rocks the Safari Explorer. A larger ship wouldn’t budge; feeling the roll of that wave gets us howling and shrieking like kids.
To reduce congestion, the park service limits how many vessels can park daily at Margerie Glacier. When a large cruise ship pulls in behind us, we retreat down the bay. Our next destination in Glacier Bay is too shallow for bigger ships and Expedition Leader Jill Quaintance tells us to suit up for skiff rides. “Dress warm and expect ice bergs. Maybe rain too,” she says. “You don’t want to miss this one!”
Anchoring along a rocky shoreline, we board skiffs and motor up a shallow channel that widens into a small bay. Ahead lies McBride Glacier. Weaving among the maze of bobbing blue icebergs, we cruise past harbor seals and bald eagles relaxing on the floating ice chunks. Along a sheer rock face hundreds of pairs of nesting glaucous gulls feed, tend to their young, and defend against predator gulls. The raucous birds squawk and scream as they careen through the crowded flying lanes and reunite with their mate at the nest.
As we drift at a safe distance from the glacier face, the sound of ice groaning and cracking reaches us. Twice, huge ice chunks break off the face and crash into the water. We’re the only people here. In this sublime moment beyond the reach of large cruise ships, we’ve found our own private Alaska.
At a leisurely pace we continue exploring the Inside Passage. Each day brings the unexpected. Humpback whales appear often and we linger to watch them feed and loll in the food-rich waters. But we’re also hunting for something that occurs nowhere else in the world. Of the thousands of humpbacks summering in Alaska, only 50-60 of them share the unusual skill of bubble net feeding. And Captain Sean knows where to find a few of them.
On a misty afternoon off Chichagof Island, splashing and spouts appear ahead. As the ship stops at a respectful distance, four humpbacks tip their tails and dive. For several minutes the sea is still. Suddenly off starboard the water starts fizzing and churning. In seconds the whales explode from the depths, jaws gaping wide to catch the bait fish they’ve rounded up from below in their circle of bubbles. For the next hour we watch eight more bubble net feedings around the boat. Even the crew is excited and joins us on deck, and together we witness a rare display that few people ever see.
Other than an occasional fishing boat and small private craft, we are alone out here. Each day brings a variety of activities. Following forest trails marked by wolf and bear scat, we forage for blueberries and watermelon berries near streams packed with migrating salmon. We kayak along remote shorelines and beachcomb in quiet coves. Bald eagles are everywhere.
As our skiff pulls up to the Inian Islands, we’re enveloped by pungent odors and a barrage of nonstop barking and yelling. Hundreds of Stellar sea lions are hauled out on rocky outcrops, either squabbling with neighbors or relaxing amid the cacophonous crowd. Dozens of them fish for salmon in the swirling currents. Several follow our skiff like curious dogs. “Don’t dangle your hands outside the skiff,” guide Maria Harvey warns. “Those guys can get frisky.”
Between activities, the Safari Explorer becomes a place to recharge and relax. Mornings begin with yoga on the upper deck. We soon discover the joys of whale watching from the hot tub. Captain Sean has an open-bridge policy, and guests are welcome to come up anytime to enjoy the wide views while learning about navigating Alaskan waters. The bridge is also a good vantage point for spotting whales. It’s from here that we first spot several pods of orcas, or killer whales, during the week. And it’s from the bridge one evening as we idle quietly in place that I spend a delightful hour watching 15 humpbacks lunge-feeding all around the ship.
By midweek the group has bonded over shared adventures, and we’re all on a first-name basis. That camaraderie deepens over meals: fresh seafood options daily, delicious entrees and salads, and fresh-baked breads and pastries. A Swiss couple, an Argentinian family, and a New Zealander blend in well with the Americans. Stories are swapped during happy hour each evening in the lounge or in the hot tub.
On the final day of our meander through the islands, we’re cruising up Endicott Arm, a deep fjord that winds more than 30 miles to Dawes Glacier. This is raw country. Polished granite walls rise hundreds of feet above the water. Waterfalls tumble down from the snowfields. As we meander up the fjord, flocks of marbled murrelets take flight and skim low over the water. When icebergs appear in our path we know we’re getting close.
The Safari Explorer rounds one last bend in the fjord and Dawes Glacier comes into view. We anchor and the engines shut down. Launching kayaks and skiffs, we navigate slowly around the icebergs toward the half-mile long terminus of the glacier. Through the cool stillness comes the growling of grinding ice.
As we approach, the vast frozen wall becomes a soaring cathedral of glistening blue crystal and glass. Colossal columns and tilted spires rise hundreds of feet. Sheer sheets of ice bigger than the ship hang like giant window panes glinting in the Alaskan sun. In the presence of this icy grandeur, chatter dwindles and soon ceases. It’s a humbling moment, and in the silence that follows, the outside world seems far away.
Leaving Endicott Arm, we turn north and head back to Juneau. The state capital is a standard stop for most cruise ships and this morning three of them are in port, temporarily boosting the city population by more than 7,000 people. Next to their gleaming hulls the Safari Explorer feels diminutive. Yet our smaller vessel took us deeper into coastal Alaska than these large liners ever could as we veered away from standard cruise routes and into places too narrow or shallow for large ships. During the week I saw only two large cruise ships; one was miles distant and soon disappeared.
With a flexible schedule, we slowed down often to watch wildlife. Beach strolls and forest hikes with our small group were unhurried. At night we anchored in sheltered coves, awakening each morning at the site of our next activity. Perhaps best of all, we were the only ones on our route. We were experiencing Alaska at our own pace.
Cruising the Inside Passage by small expedition ship isn’t for everyone. There’s no nightly musical revue or casino action, only after-dinner conversation with a glass of wine in the lounge or relaxing in your room with a few DVD movies. Instead of five restaurants, there’s only one kitchen, although the cuisine easily rivals and often surpasses that of typical cruise fare. Dressing for meals means bringing a fleece pullover along in case a whale appears during dinner. And there’s no onboard shopping except for t-shirts, hats, and mugs.
But this week on the Safari Explorer brought me closer to the land and water than I would ever get aboard a 17-deck cruise ship. With morning coffee in hand, I watched bald eagles snatch salmon from small coves. Sloshing through tide pools in rubber boots, I examined orange sea stars and purple jellyfish. I discovered the sweetness of watermelon berries along trails marked by wolf and bear. The halibut, salmon, cod, and crab we ate on board came from these waters. Often it was enough just to stand on deck and breathe the clean air as the wild scenery slipped past. Short of moving up here, this slow journey felt as close to authentic coastal Alaska as a visitor could hope to get.
And as Captain Sean promised that first evening, we did indeed brake for whales.
Eric Lindberg (ericlindberg.com) is a widely traveled writer and award-winning photographer who contributes regularly to EnCompass.
Water and bridges
By Tom Hess
If there is a thing or two to recommend most highly about the City by the Bay, it’s the cold, mysterious depths that surround it, and the means of spanning those depths and reaching the peninsula from the north and east.
Working in downtown San Francisco for five years gave me many lunch hours to walk along the Embarcadero, watching local fishermen of many generations haul in their crab catch from the bay. Emboldened seagulls would gather nearby in reasonable expectation of a scrap or full meal. All of that took place, as it still does today, around the Ferry Building Marketplace, which offers farm produce and flowers in addition to many sit-down restaurants, artisan bakeries, and craft shops. From there is a stunning view of the Bay Bridge—the western suspension span that reaches from Yerba Buena Island to a landing point just north of AT&T Park, where the baseball Giants play. Built in 1936, the span will celebrate its 80th anniversary this year. The eastern cantilever span, which replaced the eastern section destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, opened in 2013.
Sometimes special things happen across the street from the Ferry Building, at Justin Herman Plaza. There in 1987 I and thousands more watched the rock band U2 perform spontaneously. Footage from that concert appears in the film Rattle and Hum. Beginning in late January 2016, the plaza will host a “fan village” for Super Bowl 50, which will be played Feb. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
North along the Embarcadero, at Pier 50, the U.S. Navy offers tours of its amphibious carriers, destroyers and cruisers during Fleet Week in October. In 2015 the event also featured San Francisco food truck culture, live music, art and educational military displays.
Golden Gate Bridge, completed a year after the Bay Bridge, offers a vantage point like no other when the Navy ships, or any other vessel, slowly sail into the bay. Walking the span, something you cannot do on the Bay Bridge, exposes you to the often cool, even chilling, winds blowing in from the Pacific. Dress in layers, even on a summer day. It’s a long walk—1.7 miles, along the east side of the span—but there’s nothing stopping you from turning around. Watch for cyclists, which share the path till 3:30 p.m. Afterward, only pedestrians are allowed, until sunset, when the cyclists take over exclusively. Parking is available on either side, north or south.
Yes, the city also offers its famed cable cars, Lombard Street, and Chinatown, and Alcatraz is a short, sometimes choppy ferry ride away, but nothing compares to the water and the majestic spans that frame it.
One of two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York, NY. © Mike McLaughlin
By Claire Walter
Lower Manhattan was still recovering from 9/11 when Superstorm Sandy slammed into the southern tip of the island in October 2012 with frightening ferocity. A buoy in the harbor recorded a 32.5-foot wave. Water overtopped seawalls, flooded tunnels, created power outages and overwhelmed the city’s subways and ferries. When the storm subsided, the city undertook massive cleanup and restoration efforts. More than three years later, Sandy has receded into New Yorkers’ memories and is now a distant nightmare.
There had been years of planning, wrangling and re-planning before a replacement was completed for the Twin Towers that were destroyed in the 2001 terrorist attack. The new One World Trade Center opened in 2014, giving Lower Manhattan an elegant spire. The exterior skin on this soaring octagonal taper catches the changing light. Topped by a spikey antenna, it reaches 1,776 feet, even higher than the originals. The views from the One World Observatory on the 100th floor are, of course, jaw-dropping.
Flanking One World Trade are the 9/11 memorials. Cascading water from twin reflecting pools within the Twin Towers’ original footprints disappears into twin abysses below sidewalk level. The wall surrounding each pool is edged with bronze panels with the names of all victims of the attack. The subterranean Memorial Museum holds very poignant 9/11 artifacts.
One World Trade Center is a few blocks north of Battery Park at the very tip of Manhattan. The lovely landscaped park has been largely restored to its pre-Sandy condition. Inscribed onto eight massive granite pylons facing the sea are the names, rank and home state of each of the 4,061 servicemen lost in the North Atlantic during World War II.
Don’t miss a 25-minute ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free, but the views are priceless. As it leaves Manhattan, look back at the skyscrapers and the fabled Brooklyn Bridge. New York Harbor is trafficked by excursion boats to the Statue of Liberty, freighters, barges and cruise ships. It is busiest in the warm months.
From Manhattan’s skinny southern tip, walk uptown along the East River to Chinatown and stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. On the Hudson River side, walk up past sparkling new high-rise communities to Gansevoort Street. The new Whitney Museum of Modern Art anchors the southern end of the High Line. This linear park imposed on an abandoned rail line has become the thing to do in New York. Public art, optional food stops and a glance at an area of the city, until recently filled with derelict warehouses and shuttered factories, now sparkles with new construction and rehabbed old buildings. It’s New York in transition, and it’s exciting.
Pathway to history
The historic Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston, Mass., is known for its narrow, gas-lit streets and brick sidewalks. © Inge Johnsson
By Claire Walter
A 2½-mile stroll along Boston’s Freedom Trail is like a walk through the early American chapter of your high school history book. In the shadows of the skyscrapers of the modern city lies a pathway through the past. You can grab a map and follow the line of red bricks in the pavement. You’ll pass significant landmarks, with bronze markers embedded in the pavement that indicate the 16 official stops. Or you can join a Walk Into History Tour following a guide in period dress who is a goldmine of interesting factoids.
Most people start the route at the Boston Common Visitor Center. The elegant brick building with the gold dome is the “new” Massachusetts State House built in 1798. It is where the Freedom Trail intersects the 14-stop Black Heritage Trail—a reminder that Boston was not just the cradle of the American fight for independence but also of the Abolitionist movement.
The trail winds through picturesque narrow streets of old Boston past such other places as the Old State House, the Boston Massacre site, the Old State House where the Boston Tea Party plan was hatched, the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church. In its steeple, signal lanterns were hung that set Revere off on his famous midnight ride to warn Yankees about English troops’ whereabouts.
Churches, burying grounds, meeting houses and taverns held the fabric of colonial life together, and examples of all can be seen along the Freedom Trail. As you cross the Charles River on the Charleston Bridge, look for jellyfish in the dark water. Follow the train to the Bunker Hill Monument and ends at the USS Constitution. Nicknamed “Old Ironsides,” this wooden, three-masted heavy frigate distinguished herself in the War of 1812. You can climb the monument, an obelisk for a grand harbor view, and be sure to visit the fabled warship.
You can also walk the Trail in reverse, ending at the Boston Common. It is the gateway to Back Bay, whose elegant rowhouses were built for the 19th-century wealthy merchant class that emerged in the heady decades following the Revolution.
The Glasshouse is a 40-foot tall glass-and-steel structure that reflects Dale Chihuly’s lifelong appreciation for conservatories. Courtesy of Chihuly Garden and Glass/Terry Rishel
By Claire Walter
The 502-foot Space Needle was built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and soon became the city’s symbol. In its shadow, the Chihuly Garden & Glass was established half a century later. If Dale Chihuly’s works at the Denver Botanic Gardens in 2014 provided Coloradans with a taste of his works, the Seattle site serves up a visual feast of wild shapes, brilliant colors and astonishing assemblages of the master’s iconic glass elements.
The Glasshouse, a soaring 40-foot-high glass and steel structure inspired by Chihuly’s appreciation for conservatories, is the centerpiece of the gardens. Suspended within the Glasshouse is a 100-foot long serpentine sculpture of glass—red, orange, yellow and amber elements. You might call it glass under glass.
In addition, eight indoor galleries—one for each of his famous glass series—display what might be called “tabletop” art: Glass-thread “drawings” inspired by Native American textiles are trapped within clear glass cylinders. Seaforms resemble iridescent jellyfish frozen in space. Soft Cylinders and Baskets are graceful, asymmetrical vessels. The Ikebana pieces, inspired by Japanese flower arranging, are graceful, flowing glass stems and flowers emerging from glass vases. Venetians and Persians have different shapes but glow with brilliant colors. Rotolo are tubes of clear glass, twisted into intricate and fantastic shapes.
Chihuly spent a couple of years working at the Venini glass studio in Venice. In this city awash with Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture, he discovered putti. These mischievous little male characters in plaster, carved wood or paint adorn church ceilings or walls. Chihuly’s glass versions are usually a delightful part of intricate glass sculptures.
Four large sculptures are dominant features in the gardens, and slender glass reeds emerge from among the plants. They look different in sunshine, under gray skies, at night or in the rain. A theater presents short videos on Chihuly’s working process, interviews, footage of glassblowing, and creating installations and exhibitions that that have been mounted around the world.
Dale Chihuly, now 75, was born and raised in nearby Tacoma, where the Museum of Glass features works from the Chihuly Studios and other glassmakers. Visitors can watch artists at work in the fascinating Hot Shop, a working glassmaking facility and not an act for tourists. Nearby is the beautiful Bridge of Glass. The museum’s daily docent-led Chihuly Walking Tour of downtown Tacoma stops at his public art installations.