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Awareness Magazine
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Reflexions
On Southeast Alaska

by Robert Ross

 

To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world
— John Muir

Question: (from friends and family members) How was your Alaskan trip?

Answer: Hmmm . . . How was my trip, I thought to myself? How do I answer that? Cool? Awesome? Indescribable?

How do I describe in a few words, the experience of witnessing the largest “calving” (breaking away of a glacier) that we, and our naturalist guide had ever seen? And this was from 75 yards away!

Or hiking through pristine forests yelling “Yo Bear” to alert any coastal brown bears that we were in the area (a startled mother with cubs has been known to attack hikers). Or the calming effect of the sight of an area blanketed — as far as the eye could see — by lush green Sitka spruce, alder and hemlock.

And how do I convey the exhilaration of riding in a Zodiac (the same type of motorized rubber boat used by Jacques Cousteau) weaving in and out of the inlets spotting otters, bald eagles and sea lions. Or that the sighting of humpback whales breaching the surface in a rolling motion, leaving the sight of their tail fins as they headed down into the deep blue water. These were everyday occurrences. After a few days of reflection, I responded to e-mail queries with a few photos and the comment that the adventure was awesome; I also added: “do read my article!”

The Awesome Adventure
We were on an eight-day “expedition” organized by Lindblad Travel company in partnership with National Geographic. Our small ship — the Sea Lion — accommodated 60 passengers and a crew of about 30. Because of its size, we were able to navigate through passages that larger ships would have to avoid.

It had a lounge, where lectures were given and passengers socialized, a bar, restaurant and a covered deck on the back of the ship with fitness equipment and where the morning Yoga class was held.

Each passenger room had a window facing out toward the scenery . . . toward the snow-covered mountains, lush green islands, daunting glaciers or the undulating dorsal fins of an Orca whale.

Our itinerary: embark from Sitka, cruise to Point Adolphus, Inian Pass, Glacier Bay National Park, and onto Frederick Sound and Chatham Strait. While in Chatham Strait, dock and spend the day exploring the small Alaskan fishing village of Petersburg. Then onto the fjords of Tracy Arm, and on day-eight, conclude our cruise, in Juneau, Alaska.

Sitka, our embarkation point, has a population of approximately 8,000 and is the fourth largest city in Alaska. Anchor-age is the first, with approximately 260,000, followed by Fairbanks, Juneau (the capital) and then Sitka.

One immediately notices the influence of the Russian Orthodox church, not only in Sitka — where, in the city center, an ornamental church dome reaches up to the sky — but throughout Alaska. Russia played a strong role in the early development of Alaska.

Sitka is also the home of the indigenous people known as the Tlingits. The Tlingit history replete with shamans, totem poles and interacting with Russian traders, is reflective of European expansion into native lands throughout the western hemisphere.

Large cruise lines stop in Sitka, where passengers can disembark and visit the Raptor Center, hike in the Sitka National Historical Park, view the ever-present totem poles, or browse though the unique shops in town.

After leaving Sitka, our first stop was at Pavlof Harbor in the Tongas National Forest. The Tongas National Forest created by Teddy Roosevelt in 1907, is the nation’s largest national forest. It is considered a coastal temperate rainforest. Once on land, some chose to hike, and others to kayak, and still others, to hike for a couple of hours and kayak later in the day.

That was our first opportunity (the first of many) to get up close and personal with the lush green Alaskan forest. With the help or our naturalist guide, we were able to identify the wild life, trees and plants.

On our way to Glacier Bay National Park, we stopped at Inian and George Islands to again explore for wildlife, hike and kayak. Glacier Bay National Park is a World Heritage site covering 3.3 million acres. The area is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and an abundance of wildlife.

Within a couple of hundred yards of the ship, on a short walk, we spotted a moose with two little ones. The cliche “teeming with wildlife” is often used describing areas like Glacier Bay National Park; it’s an accurate phrase — to say the least.

After a day stop in Petersburg (population 3,000), a small fishing village with a strong Norwegian heritage, we headed north by ship to Tracy Arm-Ford Terror Wilderness, a spectacular fjord system. This was to be what can only be described as a once in a lifetime experience.

I knew the day was going to be special as I headed to morning Yoga and saw huge chunks of the deepest blue mini-icebergs floating by the ship — most the size of small cars. Also, the bridge had been closed to visitors for the past 12 hours — the Captain needed to be fully focused to bring us safely to our destination. It was overcast which added to the drama of the day.

After Yoga and breakfast, it was on to the Zodiacs to get close to the source of the floating ice fields. As we approached the glacier, the chucks of floating ice were a bit larger — say the size of a house? Closer and closer — we were in the lead Zodiac — perhaps a hundred yards from the glacier — when it began to “calve.”

At first, small bodies of ice broke off, bringing a loud roar from the eight of us, then a larger piece, and another and then another. Each time — in unison — a “wow” was heard from the group. Finally, the crescendo, the grand finale — a huge wall broke off the size of a five-story building.

At this point I was in disbelief — speechless. There were yells from those in the Zodiac as it crashed into the sea. “Oh my God, this is unbelievable, wow, I can’t believe what I’m seeing, Oh my God . . .” over and over.

If that weren’t enough, the action of the huge calving triggered a mountain of deep blue solid ice the size of a building to rise up from the sea floor breaching the surface reaching up and up toward the sky. It was other worldly, a Leviathan, a scene out of a science fiction movie. Nobody could believe what they were seeing.

We returned to the ship, like giggling kids, “Could you believe that?” “Wasn’t that amazing?” “Unbelievable!”
The following day we docked in Juneau.

So, when someone asks: how was your trip to Alaska? I hesitate for a moment . . . should I try to explain?

Lindblad/National Geographic has a number of cruise adventures throughout the world. The trips are pricey, the food is excellent, accommodations adequate, the naturalists on board, invaluable, the experience — priceless!

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at: SanDiegoRoss@Yahoo.com

Copyright © 2011 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved