An Alaskan Odyssey: Dream realized after 35 years

Spectacular sights from aircraft whet appetite for views from ground

Story, photos by Don Osborne

During the summer and fall of 1970, I was stationed on the remote Alaskan island of Adak, located along the Aleutian Chain midway between Anchorage and the Russian coastline.  Flying maritime patrol aircraft for the U.S. Navy, I occasionally flew overland to Fairbanks and up over the North Slope on the way to perform ice patrols for the Coast Guard.  Looking down over the barren landscape and spectacular mountain peaks and glaciers, I vowed some day to return and see it all from the ground.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2005, at the coaxing of an American couple my wife, Sandy, and I had met on a 2001 cruise up the Norwegian coast, that my dream was realized.  Our plans called for a flight to Seattle on May 23, followed by a train ride on the 24th to Vancouver, B.C., where we would join our friends and board the Spirit of Oceanus, the 120-passenger, 295-foot Cruise West vessel that was to take us on our 12-day Alaskan coastal voyage.  The itinerary showed a two-day cruise up the British Columbia coast into southeastern Alaska, followed by 10 days of travel up the Inside Passage through Frederick Sound, Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound and on into Anchorage, arriving on the 5th of June.  Stops were planned in Metlakatla, Petersburg, Juneau and Sitka where there were a variety of optional side trips to occupy our time.

We chose Cruise West over one of the larger cruise lines, as we had heard that their smaller vessels could get in closer to the coastline affording us better views of the scenery and wildlife. This fact was confirmed during the first announcement we received from our captain when he stated that the itinerary was flexible and that the ship would stop whenever wildlife was spotted along the way. In addition, the Spirit of Oceanus carried a number of 12-person Zodiac inflatables that would be used for frequent excursions into the bays and rivers to view birds and wildlife.

To round out our experience, the vessel’s highly qualified exploration staff would not only be leading our Zodiac trips, but they, along with several guest speakers, would be providing evening lectures on a variety of subjects including Alaskan history, its people and its flora and fauna. It was perfectly clear to us before we sailed that this was not the “Love Boat”!  There were no movie theaters, swimming pools or casinos on the Spirit of Oceanus.  Our days were to be filled with the sights of some of the most spectacular scenery in North America, and we planned to spend as much time on deck as our bodies could stand, weather permitting.  Having just finished reading John Muir’s Travels in Alaska, I was ready to go!

We departed from Vancouver on the evening of the 24th under clear skies and with calm winds, unaware that we would be blessed with some of the finest weather the captain and crew had seen in many a previous cruise. As we

The mountains of British Columbia.
proceeded north, the awe-inspiring scenery passed before our eyes like the scenes from an IMAX movie travelog.  The mountains of British Columbia and the Big Bear Rainforest stretched as far as the eye could see. On the morning of the 5th day, cruising into Misty Fjords National Monument, we passed between steep-sided mountains with sheer, glacially-carved granite walls soaring to snow-covered peaks.  Sure-footed mountain goats could be seen perched on minuscule ledges, and seagulls and guillemots filled the skies. Farther north on Annette Island, we made a lunch stop to visit Metlakatla, the only Tsimshian Indian reservation in Alaska
As we continued north into Wrangel Narrows, our little ship jigged and jogged through a shallow 21-mile watercourse before emerging at the south end of Frederick Sound, where a stop was planned at the picturesque town of

Arriving in Petersburg, AK.
Petersburg, Alaska’s “Little Norway”. After a visit to the Sons of Norway Hall to learn the local history and be treated to some traditional Norwegian dancing, Sandy and I were off on a single-engine float plane sightseeing trip to the nearby LeConte glacier.

Though clouds, high in the mountains, obscured our view  of the head of the glacier,  our pilot flew down its entire length to its rock-strewn terminus in LeConte Bay.  It was truly a spectacular flight.  We departed Petersburg late in the afternoon, hoping to catch a glimpse of  humpback whales - Frederick Sound being the summer home of a record number of the huge mammals - and we were not disappointed.  Before dinner, during our daily recap and briefing on the next day’s events, a shout “Whales” rang out on deck, and we all rushed out to observe several humpbacks breaching in the distance.  To our dismay, however, we were still a few weeks early to spot any Orcas.
We entered Glacier Bay on the morning of May 30th, stopping to pick up a Park Service Naturalist who kayaked out to meet us.  Throughout the day, as we cruised deep into the bay, he served as our tour guide, pointing out the key

The spirit of Oceanus entering Glacier Bay.
rivers of ice, including Grand Pacific and Margerie Glacier, that spilled into the bay depositing “bergie bits” and small ice bergs as they calved on retreat.  Into the Zodiacs we went to cruise among the bergs in search of harbor seals basking on the flows.

One group spotted a coastal brown bear making his way along the shore, and, after we had reboarded Oceanus, we spotted a lone black bear loping along the beach in search of some morsel of food.  At South Marble Island we once again manned the Zodiacs to circumnavigate the towering rock outcropping and marvel at the thousands of nesting seabirds, including kittiwakes, puffins and scoters that clung to the rocks or circled overhead.

Backtracking down Icy Straight the next morning we bypassed ice-jammed Tracy Arm, electing instead to proceed through Endicott Arm fjord as we worked our way to a stop in Juneau, the state capital.  Unable to find dock space in Juneau due to the number of major cruise vessels already in port, we disembarked in small groups and made our way to town in the Zodiacs.  Sandy

The Terminus of Mendenhall glacier.

and I took a side trip to see the terminus of the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier, some two miles at its widest point, before returning to the ship.

I should point out that our ship was underway each night while we slept.  I usually woke up by 5 each morning - those Alaska nights are short during the summer - and crept up on deck to greet the new day with camera in hand.

Early morning along the Inside Passage.
It was always so peaceful as the sun came up, watching us slip through the early dawn hours with barely a sound from the shore.

On June 1st, we arrived in Sitka, with its exotic Russian heritage, for a day of relaxation and side tours.  A mere 300 yards from the dock, along a short rise, the trees were full of bald eagles.  We had been straining our eyes for days to catch a glimpse of these marvelous raptors, and here they were as thick as thieves!  It was appropriate that Sandy and I had

Bald eagles on the jetty--Sitka Harbor.
signed up for a trip to the Alaska Raptor Center, a nearby rehabilitation facility for birds of prey.  After an afternoon walk to take in the sights of this wonderful city we departed for a day-long cruise across the Gulf of Alaska on our way to Prince William Sound and College Fjord.

I woke up earlier than usual on the morning of June 3rd and was on deck by 4:30 a.m., eager to photograph our approach into the fjord.  Rafts of floating sea

Sea otter--Prince William Sound.

Exploring base of Bryn Mawr Glacier.
otters passed down either side of the ship as we slipped silently by.  The scenery was breathtaking!  By 9 a.m. we were into the Zodiacs again for a run in to the shore to the base of mighty Bryn Mawr Glacier.

With a headwall of ice some 80 feet high, it was a sight to see.  As we sat on the beach the only sound that broke the eerie silence was the crack of some far off block of ice breaking loose way up on the glacier. All too soon we were shepherded back to the ship for our departure northbound to the Kenai Peninsula.
We spent the last full day of our cruise observing Stellar sea lions hauled out on rocky islands and dashing about in our Zodiacs, marveling at the wonderful variety of sea birds inhabiting the Chiswell Islands, part of the Alaska National Maritime Wildlife Refuge.  Tufted and Horned puffins, Common murres and black-legged kittiwakes were seen by the hundreds.

The day drew to a close with the Captain’s closing cocktail party where fond farewells were exchanged with newfound friends and crew members.  We lingered late into the evening, strolling the deck on our last night at sea.  We were sad to see the cruise come to an end, but we were eager to move on to the next phase of our trip - and the subject of a future article - five days in Denali National Park.

The Spirit of Oceanus proceeded up the Cook Inlet in the wee hours of the morning of the 5th of June and tied up at its berth in Anchorage before 9 a.m., thus officially ending what was the most memorable trip of my life:  Twelve days at sea, in the wilds of Alaska, with less than a half day of rain.  Try that in New England!!

June, 2006