By Linda Bates
October 9, 2011
Stripping the thorns from the stems of the native plant devil’s club, in preparation for making a traditional healing salve, is not what most people plan to do on an Alaska cruise. Most people expect great entertainment, delicious meals, spa visits, shopping at the ports of call and maybe putting on a fancy outfit for the final captain’s dinner.
The Island Spirit, however, promises and delivers a different experience. The ship, which holds just 32 passengers, spends nine days cruising through the islands of the Alaska Panhandle, from Petersburg to Sitka (or the reverse), going to small bays and villages that the big ships cannot reach, allowing a glimpse of the “real” Alaska.
There were no performances, except the type that Island Spirit passengers sought: whale sightings nearly every day, a view of a Stellar’s sea lion “haul up” on a rock, sea otters tranquilly floating on their backs near the boat, and the sight of a mother black bear and her two cubs foraging on the shore. There was shopping, too, if you count the hand-knit cap I bought in Tenakee Springs, population 97, knitted by Sue Scriber, who also runs the bakery/cafe and works every other week on the Alaska state ferries.
There was even a spa experience of sorts, at Baranof Warm Springs on Baranof Island, sliding down slippery rocks into a natural hot springs beside a roaring waterfall. As for the fancy captain’s dinner, we knew it was a special occasion when Captain Jeff Coult, who had been barefoot throughout most of the cruise, put on not only his uniform, but also his shoes.
We knew upon arrival in Petersburg, pop. 3,000, that this was a different kind of cruise. The woman beside me in the airport had missed the one cab into town, so a local woman offered her a ride. The Island Spirit van picked us up and we peered out through the grey mist at the plain little town with its small stores, the bay full of fishing boats, and a fish processing plant. Some of our party wondered what they’d gotten themselves into, but they warmed up to the place that evening, when we were given a home-cooked Norwegian dinner, complete with meatballs and lingonberries, at the community hall.
The citizens of Petersburg are extremely proud of their Norwegian heritage: the Sons of Norway Hall, built in 1912, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a moving memorial beside the hall honours those lost at sea, including a plaque for three members of a family lost the same day, a reminder of the dangers fishermen face.
After dinner a group of young people, 11 to 14, performed traditional Norwegian dances, taught to them by Heidi Lee, who is dedicated to preserving the Norwegian culture here.
After a quiet night in port and a good sleep on board ship we headed out into the waters of Frederick Sound. The passengers, most of whom were from the U.S. Midwest, excitedly awaited our first whale sightings. They were not disappointed: Just out of Petersburg, there was a pod of orcas. Soon after, we saw the first humpbacks, spouting and then diving, each with its distinctive and unique tail marking.
There was no shortage of information about the wildlife we saw. Laura Goff, 25, the ship’s naturalist who taught us to make salve from devil’s club, provided a talk nearly every day, on whales, salmon, natural foods and remedies and more. Goff is a master’s student in environmental education, and it’s hard to imagine a more enthusiastic and engaging presenter. We were also fortunate to have had a talk the first night by Dr. Fred Sharpe, a world-renowned humpback whale researcher and professor at Simon Fraser University, who happened to be moored beside us in Petersburg.
We saw humpbacks nearly every day, culminating in a group of five or six near Sitka, fishing close to the shore. Just as Dr. Sharpe had explained, they seemed to hunt together, “herding” the fish to shallow water near the shore, where these balleen whales could more easily slurp them up. (In the deep, they join in a circle to create “bubble nets” that bring the fish to the surface.)
Most passengers on the Island Spirit were there for the wilderness experience, and nothing fulfilled that longing more than our day and night in Ford’s Terror, a steep, narrow fjord accessible only by small ship at high tide. It’s named for a navy man who in 1889 rowed his dinghy in at slack tide and then experienced six hours of terror as the high tide waters forced their way through the bottleneck entrance, trapping him in the currents.
There was certainly nothing terrifying about our visit, however. We were the only ship in the fjord, and on an early morning kayak paddle the water was like a mirror. In the silence the fog lifted, revealing a landscape of granite walls and cascading waterfalls reflected on the sea’s surface. We were free to explore on our own, and some paddlers saw a mother bear and her cubs feeding at the water’s edge. A curious harbour seal kept me company for much of my paddle, periodically bobbing up to have a look. I think we were all sorry when that magical day ended and we waited for just the moment at high tide when we could sail back out.
We also visited Dawes Glacier on Endicott Arm, and watched in suspense as a column of startlingly blue ice “calved” off the glacier and roared into the turquoise sea. The everpresent harbour seals relaxed on ice floes, seemingly undisturbed by the commotion.
There was a stop at Tenakee Springs, a seaside hamlet of 97 on Chichagof Island, with a colourful history as a hideout for outlaws in the late 1800s. Now it’s a layover for commercial fisherman, a haven for retirees and a peaceful spot for those able to work from home via computer, e-commuting with 21st century technology from a nineteenth-century village.
In the bakery, built in 1902 and one of two shops in the village, Tucker Harper, 14, was working behind the counter. He had moved here from Juneau four years ago; his mother wanted a better school for him. The K-12 Tenakee Springs School, with (at present) just seven students, is consistently in the top 10 per cent in the state on test scores.
Kathleen Wiest, who recently moved to the town, was a teacher in Juneau for 12 years and summered in the village. Now she and her partner have made the move to full-time. “If you’re interested in a more subsistence lifestyle, this is the place to be,” she said. You just have to “gear it down.”
There are no cars in town, just a one-lane road along the beach for walkers, cyclists, ATVs and dogs.
Speaking of providing a haven for outlaws: In port was the Time Bandit, the ship featured in the popular television show Deadliest Catch.
There were also stops in Sitka and Juneau. In Sitka, once the capital of Russian-America, which stretched from northern Alaska to northern California, we toured the local museum which houses, among other things, the headdress worn by a Tlinglit leader in a battle with the Russian invaders in 1804. St. Micheal’s Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church built in 1848, burned to the ground in 1966, but townspeople rushed into the burning building to save the priceless icons and artifacts housed in the church. The rebuilt church contains those treasures. At a local rehabilitation centre for birds of prey we were awed by the sight of bald and golden eagles just a metre or two away.
This area has a temperate rainforest ecosystem similar in climate and vegetation to Vancouver’s. “How much does it snow here?” guests asked repeatedly, and the answer was, not much. The amount of rain, however, makes Vancouver look like the sun belt in comparison. Sitka, for example, gets just 75 days of sun a year and 2,190 mm, or 86.1 inches of rain. On our cruise we were extremely lucky to have sun every day but one.
Some of the passengers were at first taken aback by the spareness of the accommodation on the Island Spirit, which was comfortable but far from luxurious. The food, however, made up for whatever the cabins might have lacked. Chef Lindsay MacNail, who trained at Vancouver’s Northwest Culinary Academy, turned out one delicious dinner after another, with equally wonderful soups and salads for lunch. There was fresh salmon and shrimp, as well as chicken and beef, with original but not-too-rich sauces. We always remembered to leave room for dessert though, because pastry chef Svetana (Svete) Yakovleva, originally from Vladivistock, turned out European-style breads, cakes and pastries to die for. One passenger from New York City pronounced Svete’s pastries as good as anything to be found in Manhattan. How Lindsay and Svete were able to turn out this food from a tiny kitchen below decks is a mystery.
And no, we were never served baked Alaska.
If you go:
For this cruise, it’s necessary to fly to Alaska and back. Alaska Air runs direct flights from Seattle to Petersburg and Sitka. www.alaskaair.com
Several companies offer small-ship Alaska Cruises. The Island Spirit Cruise is offered through AdventureSmith Explorations, www.AdventureSmithExplorations.com Costs vary according to season and available promotions. Check the website for more information.