“Oh, come on…let’s do it!” pleaded Alison, my travel buddy and co-founder of Boomer Travel Media. “Small ship Alaska cruises are at the top of my bucket list.”
I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical. For one thing, I’m more of a “tropical adventure” kind of girl vs. a “glacial eco-nature” type. But perhaps more importantly, I knew this would be a very physical undertaking given all the hiking and kayaking, and I was not sure if I’d be up to it…. I’m still not quite back to 100% after my horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014.
But in the end, since it was on her bucket list, I could not refuse.
After careful research, we chose one of the small ship Alaska cruises through Alaska’s Inside Passage with AdventureSmith Explorations, an eco-adventure tour group promoting responsible and sustainable travel. We liked their “think outside the boat” approach which uses small ships to avoid the crowds and get close-up views of nature, glaciers, and wildlife.
Here are the highlights…
1. The Boat
The Westward is an 8-passenger/3-crew historic wooden yacht, just 86 feet long, which allows it to enter coves and bays too shallow for larger ships to safely navigate. The small Westward ship cruises through the Inside Passage, able to pilot into seldom explored, secluded bays, channels, and islets for kayaking and whale watching. The adventures also include onshore hiking to gorgeous settings with hot springs, glaciers, and wildlife observation opportunities.
2. The Kayaking
The small ship Alaska cruise on the inside passage is filled with secluded bays, coves, and inlets, perfect for kayaking. Depending on the time of day and weather – which can change from clear to stormy with little-to-no warning – the paddling will be on calm waters or upstream currents which can be more difficult to navigate. The variety of physical involvement made each kayaking excursion fun.
3. The Hiking
We did lots of hiking. Lots of hiking. A couple of times I was able to wear my favorite comfy, purple hiking boots I’d brought along, but most of the time we all wore the high, heavy rain boots supplied by the Westward. Even though the rain pants and boots were a bit cumbersome, I was glad to have them with the amount of mud, bushwhacking we encountered – not to mention the very real possibility of stepping in bear scat. AdventureSmith had advised that we bring gel innersoles to put inside the boots and they were a lifesaver!
I had two favorite hikes. One hike was on Brothers Island. The rainforest was so still and quiet as we climbed up into the enchanted sky-reaching tree line. We spotted a great variety of plants, moss, and lichen, such as hemlock, old man’s beard lichen, thimbleberries, and Russian mushrooms. We did a good share of clowning around in this forest!
One of the other memorable hikes was to the Baird Glacier. I used a hiking stick for the first time, and I could not have gone very far without it. The trail was a massive challenge – the path was totally boulder-strewn, with round, slippery appliance-sized rocks from toaster to refrigerator size. I am über-cautious about falling and reinjuring my pelvis and/or the titanium rod in my femur. It was also raining and foggy with poor visibility so I wore goggles. With the hiking sticks, I was able to balance and maintain a steady forward progression. Who cares that I was the last to get there? Not I. And what a reward! See below “The Glaciers” below.
4. The Magical Forests
Due to the large amount of rainfall, the landscape is so green and lush that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Shire (Middle-Earth) in the J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings movies. Alaska’s ABC Islands – Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof – all presented us with their fairytale-like woodlands and Tongass National Forest, spilling over with plant and animal life, as well as breathtaking landscapes.
5. The Bears
We took a skiff over to Chicagof Island to see if we might be able to see any bears. The brown bears – a subset of the grizzly – feed at the “fish ladder” so-named for its small cascading waterfalls where salmon swim and jump upstream to reach the calm area beyond where they spawn. The salmon are large and abundant, creating a personal buffet line for the bears. We sat across the stream and watched a sow bear and her two calves. Incredible!
Click here to read my full story about Responsible Bear Viewing Experience in Alaska.
6. The Lakes
The lakes in Alaska are stunning… serene, secluded, surrounded by mountains, and fed by glaciers. Some of our hikes culminated in these tranquil places, e.g. Eva Lake and Baranof Lake. Their beauty demands your attention and your camera. They are off-the-beaten-path, and I would recommend going with a naturalist/guide, not only to safely find the paths but also to point out the unique plant and animal life along the way.
7. The Hot Springs
Baranof Warm Springs is located on Warm Springs Bay which is just off of Chatham Strait. The springs are about halfway between the settled bay and Baranof Lake, and make a good resting place after a hike to the glacier-fed freshwater lake. There is a boardwalk at the beginning part of the hike, leading to a series of nine springs which range in temperatures from tepid to a hot 120°F. We chose to bask in the spring with the most impressive view of the river rapids. I think it might have been the 120°F because it took me forever to get into it…. it was scorching until you got used to it. Then….ahhhhhh….heaven.
Tenakee Springs is a tiny community of about 100 people located on Chichagof Island. The town features a bathhouse with an indoor 106°F sulfur hot mineral spring for public bathing. The rule for bathing is that you must enter into the water naked, and there are different time designations for men and women. Unbeknownst, we had exceedingly good timing…we women were allowed to luxuriate in the skin-smoothing water, but alas, we had to get back to the boat before the men were allowed a turn.
8. The Ice Garden
“We’re getting close to the LeConte Glacier,” said Captain Bill. Sure enough, we entered into an area he called “the ice garden.” The brilliant emerald green channel was filled with glistening white chunks of free-floating ice and icebergs of varying sizes. A few of the larger stationary icebergs had neon turquoise blue tips. Navigating through this area was a challenge, so we went slow and steady, affording lots of opportunities to take stunning photos.
9. The Glaciers
The receding LeConte Glacier, about 12 miles from the fishing town of Petersburg, is the southernmost tidewater glacier in North America. It is dangerous for boats to get close, but because we were on a small boat, Captain Bill very skillfully got us in as close as was safe. Being this close to an actively calving glacier was one of the highlights of the adventure.
The other glacier is also a receding, the Baird Glacier, which we hiked to as indicated above. After surviving the rocky path, view in the soft sand across the lake to the glaciers is nothing short of otherworldly. You literally feel like you’re on another planet. I don’t know how the bright pink flowering plants can survive, but the juxtaposition made for exquisite photography.
Interested in hiking glaciers? Check out this story about ice climbing in Alaska!
10. The Critters
In addition to the larger-than-life wild things, naturalist Hannah Hindley’s eagle eye frequently spotted and pointed out some amazing crawly things, a.k.a. invertebrates. Among the findings were lion’s mane jellies, limpets, hermit crabs, blue mussels, and sea urchins.
But I was most intrigued by the slimy, almost transparent, banana slug. The Pacific banana slug is the second-largest species of terrestrial slug in the world, growing up to 9 inches long. Back on board the ship, Hannah told us that licking a banana slug would make your tongue go numb, a quality most likely a result of their diet. Wait, what? I wanted to find another one on the next hike, but alas we did not. I wanted to see if the numbing legend was true. Really, I did.
11. The Ports
We flew into water-locked Sitka, the Westward’s point of departure. The town was originally settled by the Tlingit people over 10,000 years ago. In 1799, Russians settled Old Sitka and their influence is still seen today in some of the remaining architecture. We spent two days exploring before casting off Alaska wild coast. We hiked in Sitka National Historical Park, visited the Alaska Raptor Center to see the Bald Eagles, toured through the Russian Bishop’s House Museum, and went souvenir shopping (the only opportunity) in the charming downtown across from St. Michael’s Cathedral.
About halfway through the cruise, we docked in Angoon, a town of approximately 500 inhabitants and the largest permanent settlement on Admiralty Island. This island has long been the home of the Kootznoowoo Tlingit people, and Angoon is primarily a residential area but with some paved walking paths that lead to stunning scenery.
Another stop was at colorful Tenakee Springs on Chicagof Island. Tenakee has a small population, just over 100 people, making it seem more like a village. The island is used by the Tlingit Indians. It a tranquil place to fish, ride a bike, or soak in the hot springs mentioned above.
Our docking departure port was Petersburg. The small 46-square-mile fishing town, halfway between Juneau and Ketchikan, is sometimes referred to as “Little Norway.” It was founded by the Norwegian immigrant Peter Buschmann, and maintains a strong Scandinavian vibe.
12. The Food
The food was superb, flesh, locally sourced prepared in an endless variety of international recipes in the small galley by Chef Tracie Triolo, a former protégé of Wolfgang Puck. Among the favorite entrees were lamb curry, local silver salmon, elk Picadillo, and salt fish cakes with mango salsa, pictured above
Click here to read more about the amazing food onboard the Westward in Alaska.
Click here to read about Alaska’s salmon culture.
13. The Comradery
The beauty of cruising on these small boats, from the perspective of the crew as well as the guests, is the opportunity to bond with everyone onboard, each with a different point of view and lifestyle.
“We’re all literally surrounded by danger, and it brings people together in a very different way than ever happens on land,” said Chef Tracie. “Instant intimacy, just add water!
Click here to read about family travel in Alaska.
14. The Thrills
Scenery Cove, one of the secluded bays we ventured into, afforded not only the opportunity for a kayaking adventure but another thrill as well – jumping off the boat into the frigid cold water! Only three people opted for this teeth-chattering escape…two teenagers and one crazy blonde middle-aged woman. Can you guess who that was? Soooooo fun! YOLO, right?
15. The Whales
For me, the most memorable moment on the trip was chancing upon a large group of Humpback whales in the middle of the Frederick Sound. I was down in my cabin when I felt the boat slow down and just about stop. When I ventured up to the main deck, I saw the rest of the passengers gathered, smiling and clicking their cameras. We were surrounded by dozens of whales, everywhere you looked! Some were fairly close to the boat, and others were off on the horizon. We observed them breaching (flipping over the water), spy watch (head out of the water and they seem to be looking at you), and lunge diving (going head down with their tales the last to go down, lingering in full view). They seemed so playful, almost as if they were putting on a show for us! Is that even possible? We all felt – even the crew – felt very blessed to happenchance on this scenario which because you can’t plan such a thing in the wild, will likely never be experienced by most people.
The cruise with AdventureSmith was a milestone for me. I did it! And better yet, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I was frequently the last one to our destination when we were hiking. And, I never hit Alison in the head with my kayak paddle, as I had feared (although I may or may not have splashed her in the face once or twice).
I loved it. The cruise. The crew. The comrades. The accomplishment.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of AdventureSmith Explorations during her stay in Alaska, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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