Getting there wasn’t easy. We flew from Tampa to Seattle to visit a friend there, overnighting at the Seattle Marriott near the airport for a morning flight that went through Vancouver to Prince Rupert, where the airport is on an island, necessitating a bus to a ferry, then a ferry ride to the Crest Motor Hotel for another overnight. The next morning after a tour of the city and the countryside, we finally boarded the yacht.
The passengers included a retired physician and his wife, two bankers, a social worker and massage therapist who were starting their own retreat, and a now rich man who had helped start a computer company in a garage and his wife, plus us as writer and photographer. The crew consisted of captain, mate, chef, naturalist, two waitresses who also took care of cabins, and a naturalist trainee.
The 105-foot Safari Spirit is very impressive vessel, with beautifully appointed state rooms and a richly furnished salon. Our cabin had twin beds, private bath with shower, individually controlled thermostat, a dressing table, chest of drawers, two hanging lockers, and plenty of room. There were windows, but high so they had no view. Our stateroom was very quiet. (The two aft cabins, closer to the engine, had some vibration and noise when the yacht was underway.) The most elegant staterooms were on the Bridge Deck with king-size bed and large sliding glass doors to a balcony.
It was indeed, as the brochures said, not like traveling on a big cruise ship, but like cruising in your own private yacht. In fact, I hung out at the helm station most of the time we were underway, getting the captain’s eye of the voyage, following our course on the charts, and hearing stories of how whales migrate and the captain’s and mate’s experiences swimming with whales on research voyages. On two afternoons I even got to take the wheel for an hour or so.
The Safari Spirit was an intimate way to see the heart of Alaska up close and personal. We learned just how up close and personal on the first evening when we made our first exploring run in the ship’s zodiac. We had arrived in Foggy Cove, which indeed it was, with mist rising all around, the water flat and still, and the scenery as serene as a Japanese painting. I was huddled behind the naturalist, shaking with cold (I had just come from Florida and was wondering why I hadn’t worn long underwear and a full-length alpaca coat), when we saw the bear. It was a brown bear (you tell by the teddy-bear shape of the face and shoulder hump more than the color – black bears have a pointed face and no hump). It was grazing on grass in a flat meadow along the shore (bears eat mostly grass in the spring, eat salmon at spawning time in the fall). We shut off the outboard engine and quietly glided close to shore, watching the bear and the bear watching us. We sat entranced for quite a while, until the bear decided to check us out more closely and came out on a log just a few feet from us, at which point we quickly got out of there. We saw many bears on other days, but this one was special because it was our first, and it was so close.
We spent the night at anchor in the cove, and the next day explored some more by zodiac and by kayak. Then we cruised to Ketchikan and checked out the museum and other high spots there, luckily on a day when none of the big ships were in port.
Monday morning we left early, cruising through the Misty Fiords National Monument Wilderness and arrived in Yes Bay, again with mirror-like calm water. Then three at a time we took a floatplane sightseeing tour of the area, where we flew over mountain lakes, and saw long stretches of ice fields and glaciers, and mountainsides with occasional mountain goats on craggy slopes. In the evening was more kayaking, more zodiac exploration, and a hike to a waterfall.
Going through these remote waterways to secluded bays and coves was wonderful. We took deep breaths of the fresh air and looked hard at the incredible scenery to imprint the views on our memory. We seldom saw another boat. Mostly we saw virgin forests, dotted by an occasional village or fishing lodge. Every bend around the next point meant another glimpse of awesome scenery. The passengers tried to figure ways to rate the views:”5 wows”, “5 ahhs”, “incredible”, “awesome”, “mystical”.
In our evening discussions in the salon we had a lot to talk about. There also were lectures by the naturalist, videos to view, and excellent reference books on Alaska culture and wildlife. There was also a hot tub on deck for relaxing and star-gazing at night.
The next day was Meyers Chock, a fishing village, population 18 (including two families who haven’t spoken to each other in years). We visited the little post office which also housed the village pool table and talked to the local people: the postmistress, a man painting his fishing boat, the woman in the gift shop who warned us there was bear sighted on the trail that morning, the widow who wove baskets to sell. In the afternoon we went by zodiac to an island to explore where a house used to be. Coming through the woods in our orange float suits that we wear for warmth we looked like invading Martians or weird orange guerilla forces moving through the trees. That day in Meyers Chock the chef had loaded up on supplies and we had a dinner on deck of fresh salmon, crab, and barbecued ribs. And the fresh baked bread that we had every day.
By now we had seen several bears, a huge black bear, several browns including one with a cub, as well as eagles, various seabirds, dolphins, and sea otters. And we were appreciating more and more the waterways we were going through, seeing the real Alaska wilderness. The Tongass National Forest that we were cruising through is the largest national forest in the United States, 17 million acres. It is isolated and wild, uncrowded, with huge tracts of old-growth trees… a scarcely touched wilderness with spectacular scenery. There are many streams and lakes and waterfalls because of the high rainfall, and more bears and eagles than anywhere else in the world.
As we went from Prince Rupert on the Canadian/Alaskan border and cruised north to Juneau it was like going back through geological time. We could see the same differences in plant succession that occurred over the centuries as we went from lush fully matured forest to the glaciers, like going back in capsule form to the ice age. After the ice age came lichens and mosses, then pioneer plants like fireweed, later bird droppings brought shrubs and tree seedlings, then willows and cottonwoods and alders, climaxing with spruce and hemlock trees. It takes some 300 years to grow a forest, and every mile we go is like going back 10-15 years in history. And the glaciers are still moving and receding and molding the land. We began to see more and more treeless snowy mountains as we cruised northward.
Our next town was the Norwegian fishing village of Petersburg, and we docked next to dozens and dozens of fishing boats, all reflected in the water at sunset. We walked the town, did some shopping, and after dinner went to Kato’s Kave, the local dance hall/lounge. Our nutty naturalist – we were beginning to catch on to his tricks – said they check at the door for knives or guns, and if you don’t have any, they give you one. There were a lot of beards and boots, but no guns, and we got to know some locals, most of whom thought coming to Florida in the winter would be a good idea.
The next day we hiked through the forest, different from the usual nature hike because instead of being quiet so as not to scare away wildlife, you are told not to carry food and to make lots of noise. Our nutty naturalist sang songs and chanted “Hi Bear. We are coming. We have no food, Bear.” After the hike up a salmon-spawning creek, we cruised to an island for a picnic on the beach where we saw oyster catchers and bear bones and took pictures of the chef pretending to gather bones for soup and the crew bringing flower arrangements by zodiac to put on the driftwood picnic table.
On our way to the next destination Dall porpoises zipped around our bow; later we came upon a whale or two, then we came upon an island filled with hundreds of sea lions, wrestling and belching in their own noisy frat party.
On Friday we entered Tracy Arm. The captain revved up the action by nosing us closer and closer right up into a waterfall, the water pounding onto the foredeck. Then we cruised right up to the north and south arms of the Sawyer glacier, then got closer yet by zodiac, motoring around brilliant turquoise bergies through water milky with ice bits. That evening from the ship we saw a huge momma black bear and her two cubs strolling in a meadow along the water, a fitting tribute to our last night on board. We all agreed that of the millions of people who come to Alaska not many experience what we did on the Safari Spirit.
In Juneau we were picked up by Northern Sights company in a cool 1937 touring car. Some people took the tour to Mendenhall Glacier, the rest of us caught the beginning of the parade of tribal dancers of native American communities from all over Alaska and their celebration of military veterans at the Juneau convention center.
American Safari Cruises also has the Safari Quest, a little larger than the Safari Spirit, carrying 21 guests. It has eight-night packages between Sitka and Juneau. On both vessels, meals are served family style at one seating, dress is always totally casual. They both typify the joy of small ship cruising. American Safari Cruises calls it yacht cruising. What ever you call it, it gives you flexibility of changing course for a whale sighting or other wildlife sightings, it lets you get to know your fellow travelers and the officers and crew, and to get to know about the people and cultures and environment where you