Small Ship Cruising: Alaska’s Inside Passage

“Humpback sighting, off the starboard quarter!”

By Nancy Mueller

Humpback whales in Alaska. Photos by Nancy Mueller.
Humpback whales in Alaska. Photos by Nancy Mueller.

The call goes out among the passengers aboard the Island Spirit, our 128-foot ship exploring Alaska’s Inside Passage.

As if on cue, the humpback vaults skyward in a spellbinding display of both power and agility.

But that’s just the warm-up: the whale continues breaching for twelve jumps, sparking my joy at being alive, here, now, at this moment. “Is there anything he missed?” asks Hal, a fellow passenger. “Breaching, sounding, spy hopping, lobtailing, fin waving, fin slapping. He did it all!”

Soon six, no, eight, or was that ten, porpoises join in the fun, darting alongside our ship, then back and forth across the bow, like underwater fireflies.

Is this heaven?

Heaven’s Door: Few places on this planet can rival Alaska’s Inside Passage for its fierce beauty and scope of size. Also known as The Alexander Archipelago, this chain of islands extends 1,000 miles along the western coastline in southeast Alaska, from Skagway in the North to the Dixon Entrance in the south.

I can’t imagine a better way to enter Heaven’s gate than from here, aboard a small ship cruise like ours
that gets you up close and personal to nature’s secret wonders. Here’s why:

Mr. Ford, a hungry Alaskan bear.
Mr. Ford, a hungry Alaskan bear.

From the moment the owner-operator, Captain Jeff Behrens, and his crew welcome us aboard, everything changes. In our cabin, the soft sound of a Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suite fills the room. My heart rate drops thirty beats.

The Sturm und Drang of our daily lives subside. I stop, let go of my baggage, and survey my surroundings. For the next nine days, this will be our home with front-row seats to Alaska’s diverse landscape and wildlife.

As our small ship pulls out of port in Sitka, my relaxation deepens. I say “Good-bye and good riddance!” to the crazy-busy, multi-tasking self I left behind on the dock.

Cut off from cell phone and internet service for most of the cruise, our only task is to sit back, relax, and soak up the scenery floating by us. Within minutes, we’re engaged in a moving meditation of exploration and discovery.

The small ship, Island Spirit, just 128 feet long.
The small ship, Island Spirit, just 128 feet long.

Play with Friends in Alaska

Heading north, we make our way through the Olga and Neva Straits, past Pink Flamingos, where we have our first wildlife sighting, albeit plastic ones.

Apparently a Coast Guard crew, out looking for a little fun, placed several high in neighboring spruce trees where ship passengers, just like us, could see them.

Ah – it’s good to know the playful spirit is alive and well inside the passage. We find it on our ship, too, thanks to our poet-writing, fun-loving raconteur, Captain Jeff, who lives by the credo: “Sometimes you just have to make your own fun, you know?”

We do, and he regales us at dinner’s end with tales that keep us smiling and laughing far into the evening.

Only 32 Passengers Aboard

With accommodations limited to 32 passengers, it’s easy to feel at home among friends. We’re a diverse lot that includes a retired forester, a former army nurse of President Eisenhower, a chef, naval architect, ship designer, and healthcare administrator among others. Before long, we’re sharing life stories and favorite travel tales, together with the captain and crew.

The ship's Captain.
The ship’s Captain.

Find Peace and Tranquility

We spend our first night tucked inside St. John the Baptist Bay, a small, hidden cove, invisible on my map. The ship’s engines are turned off, as they are every night of our cruise. The only sounds are of silence.

I have no thoughts, only awareness, and wonder of being present in the moment, buoyed by the sublime beauty surrounding me. John Muir had it right: here is “so holy a wilderness.”

My gratitude for this one night alone is boundless, like the vast expanse of sea before me.

The next day I wake early, eager to see what daylight brings. Already the decks are bathed in morning sun. Straight ahead steep mountains of the Tongass National Forest, rise from the water’s edge.

Tongass National Forest: The Largest

Covering 16.8 million acres, Tongass is the largest national forest in the nation. Before the day’s end, the temperature will rise to a balmy 74 degrees. With no hint of wind, it’s just another day in Paradise.

Dawes Glacier
Dawes Glacier

What would Paradise be without accompanying ambrosia? Fortunately, we don’t have to find out. With meals prepared by Chef Lindsay MacNail and Pastry Chef, Jake, we’re both pampered and well-fed.

By the end of our cruise, we’ll have savored quinoa and spring greens salads, roasted cornish game hens, prosciutto-wrapped halibut fillets, biscuits topped with macerated strawberries and crème Chantilly, and orange ricotta cheesecake. Mmm…

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, applewood smoked bacon, hash browns, and blueberry muffins, I head for the ship’s lounge. Captain Jeff advises us that the day’s schedules will be weather and wildlife-driven, setting the stage for a leisurely, meandering journey.

It’s no surprise to find Sterling Hayden’s book, Wanderer, on a nearby bookshelf, along with a collection of DVDs that include, Master and Commander, North to Alaska, Russia House, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Bucket List.

Learn as You Go in Alaska

Porpoise at play
Porpoise at play

Before long the ship’s naturalist-in-residence, Richard Tanner, throws out today’s vocabulary lifeline: “isostatic rebound,” a process by which landmass rises as its glacier cover recedes.

Under Richard’s tutelage, we’ll have earned our own naturalist’s certificate by the end of our journey, using words like, “nunataks,” “katabatic wind,” “storis-blue,” “calving glaciers,” and “glacial erratics” with aplomb.

Ahead of us lie Poison Cove, Deadman Beach, and Peril Straits. Gee. I wonder if there’s anything the crew wants to tell us, like the real reason they’re all trained in CPR? Not to worry. Richard assures us that each location was named for early Russian traders who had consumed shellfish here during a red tide.

Now we know better, i.e. that an overabundance of algae contaminates the water in certain weather conditions, causing toxins in shellfish, clams, and mussels, among other marine animals that feed on microscopic plankton. Thankfully, there’s no red tide today so we can have our seafood chowder and eat it, too.

Get on a First-name Basis with Wildlife

Sea lions sleeping on a buoy
Sea lions sleeping on a buoy

We move through Fish Bay, named for the abundance of shellfish, mussels and sea urchins that thrive here, at least for now. A raft of very happy sea otters floats by, hoping to take a sizeable chunk out of the fish population before moving on to their next feeding spot.

On the tip of our turn into Peril Straits, at Otstoia Island, we score multiple wildlife sightings in one panoramic scene: a brown bear grazes the beach, while sea lions romp and play offshore, a humpback breaching just beyond, an eagle flying overhead.

Just when you think it can’t possibly get better than this, it does, time and again over the course of our nine-day journey.

Go Kayaking

A new day brings the promise of kayaking the calm inland waters. Our safety comes first with captain and crew who ensure that even first-timers like me are well-equipped and have the confidence we need to set forth. A nifty loading platform makes it easy to get ourselves into our kayaks and we’re off.

As we paddle around Kelp Bay, it’s comforting to know that a crew member is keeping an eye on us through binoculars, just in case. But after only a few moments in the water, I’m hooked. I want to keep moving, exploring, going around the next bend, the next beach, to see what lies beyond. Space, solitude, and serenity have centered me, and almost paradoxically, unleashed my wild heart, one ready for play and adventure.

Soak in Hot Springs

I’m in luck because we’re about to move on to the day’s main attraction: Baranof Lake and Hot Springs in Warm Springs Bay. When we arrive in the small community, we have our choice of soaking in one of three separate tubs in the public bathhouse or opting for a longer climb up to the hot springs. We decide to head for the springs.

Since we’re in bear country, our group makes sure to talk really loud while we walk on. The hot springs look so appealing that I can’t wait to hop in. YEOW!! @#*! I can’t print the first words out of my mouth as my feet hit the water, nor can I get my feet out fast enough. Let’s just say that the water, at nearly 105 degrees, was hot enough to curl my toes. Some things require easing into, and Baranof Hot Springs is one of them.

Ford's Terror Waterfall
Ford’s Terror Waterfall

Visit Remote Communities

Our small ship allows us to go boldly where big ships fear to go. You have to love a small community where the posted census includes the number and names of dogs as well as their masters; a place where the proprietor of the closed general store opens up shop when you come to town.

This is Tenakee Springs, idyllically located on Chichagof Island, home to fewer than 100 residents who are nearly outnumbered by their dogs.

A resident stops to chat with us, describing the surprise visit of a hungry bear earlier this year. Though the bear never made it inside the house, it left its calling card in deep scratch grooves on the front door, reminding us we’re never too far away from nature’s wildlife.

Watch Calving Glaciers

Close enough to drink from Fords Terror Waterfall
Close enough to drink from Fords Terror Waterfall

As we approach our final major destination, Fords Terror, I pause again at the nomenclature. “Are you sure that’s where we want to go?” I ask. Captain Jeff reassures me: “Trust me. You want to go there.”

He’s right, of course, because here is where we discover “Mr. Ford,” a large brown bear, and friends, foraging among the rocks onshore. Hopping into one of the ship’s inflatable crafts, we make eye contact while keeping a respectful distance.

Still ahead in the Endicott Arm fjord is the pièce de la résistance: Dawes Glacier. Even after everything we’ve seen in the last eight days, this natural wonder is a stunner. Wow.

We watch as large chunks of iridescent blue ice break off from their towering mother ship and splash into the water amazingly close to us.

Come Back Again

Group outing off Alaska's coast.
Group outing off Alaska’s coast.

Tennyson claimed: “I am part of all that I have met.” While none of us want to leave the Inside Passage heartland, we do so knowing we take with us the many gifts we’ve received in the last nine days. As we depart, a rainbow crests over the harbor.

We all nod in agreement when fellow passenger Sue Wolff sighs: “I don’t think I’ve ever had a more relaxing vacation, at least not since I was a kid at the beach when all I had to do was show up, eat and play.” The good news is Captain Jeff says we’re welcome back any time.

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For more information, contact:

Nancy Mueller.


Nancy Mueller is a freelance travel writer from Seattle. She has taught a course in travel writing there for many years. Visit her website. Her Book, called International Career Strategies for the Adventurous Job Seeker is available here.

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