Story and photos by Babbie De Derian
An Alaskan Wilderness Expedition
Aboard the Chichagof Dream
My Alaskan Dream Cruise will best be remembered as a “dream catcher” of unexpected surprises and adventures: the intensity of a journey through Glacier National Park, the serenity of paddling a kayak in rhythm with the flapping of a bald eagle’s wings as it soars overhead, the musical sounds of a waterfall snaking its way down the mountain to empty its heart into Kelp’s Bay, and the thunderous roar of a glacier as it calves and crashes… stirring the water into waves that “rock our boat”. These indelible experiences unleashed raw emotions… exposed my vulnerability to the powers of Mother Nature… and renewed my respect for the Native American people who have lived off these lands (hunting and fishing) for 10,000 years.
We are an eclectic congenial group on a 204 feet ship that accommodates 74 passengers, a crew of 28 and two knowledgeable expedition leaders. The Chichagof is intimate and casual; my bed extremely comfortable; the sheets as soft as any 5 star hotel. After boarding, we enjoy a short sail to Orca Point Lodge on Colt Island for a welcoming feast: fresh caught salmon is on the grill; Alaskan crab legs simmer in huge pots; a server carves prime ribs; buffet tables are laden with inviting bowls of vegetables, salads and deserts. After dinner, we gather around a fire pit on the rocky beach to toast marshmallows. By the time we return to the Chichagof, friendships have begun to form.
It takes 12 hours to navigate into, and then out of Glacier Bay. We pick up a park ranger and our Alaska Native Voices of Glacier Bay Cultural Heritage Guide at the Visitor’s Entrance to Glacier National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site. They spend the day sharing their knowledge and traditions. Alice, a Tlingit spins heart warming mesmerizing tales of her sacred land and sea. She tells us: “the spirit is everything and everywhere. Tlingits are born into two moieties: raven or eagle and then divided into clans. I am a raven married to an eagle; one follows your mother’s moiety; you can marry outside your clan, but a raven must marry an eagle. We’ve always lived near water, next to a glacier. Totem poles outside our houses identify the people who live there”.
Mist and low clouds hang heavy as we slowly work our way up Glacier Bay. We anchor, and I climb backwards down a ladder into the DIB, an inflatable pontoon boat with a small motor. Jason steers the boat along the shoreline. It is raining, but we are oblivious to the elements, protected by waterproof jackets and pants supplied by the ship. The landscape is dramatically beautiful; majestic bald eagles and other rare birds soar overhead; White Mountain goats graze the rocky cliffs; 2,000 huge sea lions blanket the rocks and frolic in the water; a bear ambles along the shore, his coat matted by the rain; porpoises and whales surface, disappear and resurface.
In the afternoon, Doug, a fellow passenger and I kayak around the bay; we are surrounded by Mother Nature at her purest. Our paddles, moving in and out of the water, break the silence; we follow the faint sounds of running water to a waterfall cascading down the mountain; the pristine wilderness is humbling. It is surrealistic to be so isolated from the world.
We enter Kelps Bay, towards Baronof Island, surrounded by 2.7 million acres of protected wilderness. The majestic Fairweather Mountains, with rugged peaks reaching up to 5, 000 feet, come into clear view; the glacier rises in the distance; its size and imperial reign is staggering. We climb down into the DIB; Jason slowly maneuvers as close to the glacier as safety allows. Tim, with hooked pole in hand keeps us from hitting floating icebergs. We sit quietly waiting for the show to begin: condensation rises; followed by the roar of the glacier as it goes through the calving process of cracking, breaking off and crashing into the water… sending waves across the bay and under our DIB. It has been an exhilarating morning, and when we climb back onto the Chichagof, we are rewarded with a scrumptious lunch buffet.
Petersburg, “Alaska’s little Norway”, is one of the top producing commercial fishing communities in the state. We are told this has not been a good fishing season, and boats idle in their births. At the Sons of Norway Hall we enjoy Norwegian folk dances performed by local youths. The town’s vibrant Scandinavian community was built on the dreams of Norwegian fishermen who landed in Ellis Island in the 1890’s, and found or worked their way to Alaska.
I awake; grab my binoculars and press them against my cabin window. Surrealistic ice sculptures drift by; I am hoping to see the blow of a whale, but we are moving too fast to bring one into view. We journey through Endicott Arm, a pristine fiord; towering ice bergs and 4,000 foot high cliffs rise into the sky.
Every night we gather in the lounge for social hour; never knowing what appetizers we might find waiting or what cocktail concoction is being mixed. Throughout the cruise, Chef Adam and his staff tantalize our taste buds with a wide selection of hearty dishes, piled high with flavor and creativity. What I especially liked was the option of ordering ½ and ½ portions of two entrees when more than one sounded too delicious to miss. My favorites: plump fried oysters, hash browns and scrambled eggs with fried bacon fat crumbled on to… brown butter poached halibut with cauliflower puree and asparagus… orange scented duck served with sticky rice, shitake mushrooms and baby bok choy… and pastry chef Brian’s amazing dessert buffet, that he stayed up all night to bake. Onboard, and in port, entertainment is a mix of riveting talks, interaction with locals, the amusing antics of whales, porpoises and sea lions brought into view through high powered binoculars… and the tumultuous sky lighting of the aurora borealis.
We cruise Frederick Sound to the native village of Kake, on the northwest coast of Kupreanof Island. . We are warmly welcomed onto their shores; marvel at one of the “World’s tallest Totem pole (recently returned to the island). At the recreation center men, women and children (as young as one year old) dressed in native ceremonial blankets entertain us with song and dance; we then join them, moving in a sacred circle to the beat of a skin drum.
The sun is bright and warm; we anchor off Eastern Baranof Island, the 4th largest island in Southeastern Alaska, and spend our last day kayaking and zipping around Takatz bay in our DIB. I embrace this amazing expanse of wilderness for a final intense moment; several passengers brave the elements for a Polar plunge into the cold clear waters.
In the evening, Victor, a member of the Thunderbird Clan, shares his heritage: “we have our own DNA, myths, legends, and diversity of great culture …love, knowledge and wisdom follow us. Artwork and our clothing have always represented who we are and where we came from, but now that we have a written language; we are free to tell our stories… to connect the dots and protect our culture”.
The Chichagof Dream docks on the charming island of Sitka, home to the Allen family, who own and operate Alaskan Dream Cruises and a fleet of day trippers.
Jamey Cagle, the grandson of founders Bob and Betty Allen, and the Senior VP of the company tells me: “We’re extremely proud of our heritage as Tlingits and Alaskans, and our mission is to show our guests our home, our friends, our landscapes, and our culture. That's why our tagline is 'True Alaska with True Alaskans'".
Sitka has a rich history and an interesting mix of year round residents, shops, galleries, restaurants and bars. I follow a path along the marina; pass the hatchery where salmon are being captured and eggs removed; and meet a local, out for his morning stroll. Sherry, from Visit Sitka, takes me on a walking tour, and then organizes a “Tribal Tour” to: the island’s “not to be missed” attractions: Totem Park, The Rapture Center (Alaska’s only full-service avian hospital and educational facility) and Fortress of the Bear. It is a warm day, and people are swimming in the sea.
Kathy Jones, Chef at the Westmark Hotel Restaurant tells me: “Food as a reason to gather people; a social way of life”. Her flavorful crab cakes and beer battered halibut fish and chips deserve rave reviews.
The Sitka runway sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The fog is thick; rain pelts the windows. The Alaskan Airlines pilot is experienced at flying low over the mountains and lifts the plane into the air with the grace of a soaring bald eagle.
The Alaskan wilderness welcomed me into its embrace… clearing cobwebs from my mind… blowing clarity through my brain, like the blow of a whale. Alaska is endearing, but what touched me most were the Native American people who shared their traditions, commitment to family, hopes for the future, and the challenges they have taken on to preserve their culture. Legends are lessons, and there’s a moral in everyone. Tsu yei Yo Eekwasateen “until we meet again” Alaska.
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