Alaska 2


The Wilderness Legacy was our boat/ship home (when does a boat become a ship?) during our week in Southeast Alaska. The captain, a veteran of 35+ years of piloting had an open-door policy for his command post, which we didn’t get around to cashing in on until our last full day onboard. Fortunately, we had chosen a moment when the boat was anchored, so the captain (whose name any good journalist would have jotted down) was free to chat. He outlined for us the history of the vessel which was built in the 80’s with a design intended to mimic steamships of an earlier era. Since then, it has cycled through a number of owners, mostly victims of bankruptcy and an equal number of name changes, but it has been part of Uncruise for some time now.

WL, as we’ll call it, has three decks for passengers and one deck below for crew. The rooms were predictably small, but they had everything we needed, including a shower more forceful than our anemic one at home and the kind of lighting that made reading a pleasure, an amenity that is often neglected in hotel and motel rooms. The upper deck was well-stocked with exercise equipment – bikes, ellipticals, weights, mats – with which we should have become better acquainted, given the amount of food we inhaled over the course of the week. There were also two hot tubs which we didn’t use at all.

The second deck contained a large lounge which housed the very popular open bar. In addition to the wine available at lunch and dinner, drinks were for the asking at all hours, the cost built into the price of our tickets. Given the amount of free-flowing alcohol, we never saw anyone intoxicated, and the free booze opportunity was wasted on the likes of us, who indulged in occasional wine at dinner and even more occasional exploration of the well-stocked shelves of liqueurs. The lounge was also the site of all the information sessions before and after dinner, about which more later.

The dining room occupied a large space on the first deck. It contained booths for six and some round tables for slightly larger groups. If you can flash back to your middle school cafeteria or your summer camp dining hall, you may remember the anxiety of finding a welcoming space to park yourself. There were family groups which didn’t accommodate outsiders and small cliques of couples who bonded almost immediately, leaving you with the sense that you must have missed the first day of school when all this bonding was happening.

Nonetheless, we had pleasant and sometimes surprising meals with many lovely people – doctors, lawyers, teachers, businesspeople, all sharing a common anti-mega-cruise ship ethic which drew them to this strange little niche world of UnCruise. We were by far the oldest passengers in a group that clustered predominantly in the mid-fifties to early seventies range, and we sensed a bit of ageism in the group’s desire to seek out people closer to their own age. The physical limitations of our age eliminated us from some of the activities that younger people opted for which imposed another barrier to our relationships. Bushwacking through thick woods on our bellies didn’t much appeal to us; in fact, it might not have at any age.

And, finally, I’m ready to get down to the heart of the trip – what we did, what we saw, what we learned. The schedule varied little from day to day. There were activities to choose from after breakfast and again after lunch, for which we signed up the previous evening. The boat was equipped with a large fleet of two-person kayaks, so that became a standard choice wherever the boat was anchored. On land hiking options on various levels from bushwhacking to gentle walks were another regular on the agenda. Finally, there was the skiff option, which requires some explanation. Skiffs are rubber boats that can carry 8-12 passengers, and which are launched from the lower deck of the mother ship.

The skiffs were almost always the option we chose, dictated by our age and our history of limited exposure to certain physical activities. I’ll save my comments on the unphysical lives we’ve led for now so I can keep us focused on the Alaska experience itself. On our first day out on the skiff, our recovering lawyer Andrew navigated us into a bay that was literally exploding with humpback whales. If you’ve done any whale watching, you will identify with the thrill of seeing the telltale blow of spray and the breaching of that enormous tail fin. This breathtaking sight was happening all around us, sometimes in groups, which may have been mother/child pairs.

We were training our eyes to see other signs of aquatic life less dramatic than the humpback show. Most common were the sea otters leaving a more modest trail in the water, as they swim backstroke-fashion, sometimes with their babies on their chests. I was never keen enough to see that event but others on the skiff did. We were also learning to pick out the silhouettes of the bald eagles perched at the very tops of the spruces that lined the shore – always a thrill.

Andrew maneuvered us into a sprawling field of kelp. He reached over the side and pulled up a long smooth, shiny brown tube with aslick cluster of kelp attached to the end. After we sampled a slightly salty but tasty bit, he cut a length of the tubing and played a few credible notes on it, pitch changing as he cut the length shorter and shorter.

On two different occasions our skiffs brought us close to the glaciers that the larger boat had to maintain a safe distance from because of the shallow waters. We had awakened one morning to see large chunks of ice drifting by, some as blue as the anti-freeze we use in our cars. The chunks were the result of “calving,” the term that describes the phenomenon of walls of ice dropping away from the central glacier. At the the appropriately named Glacier Bay, the glacier had once covered the entire inlet – a distance of 60 miles. Almost two centuries of retreat through calving, accelerated in recent decades by global warming, has left only 7 still majestic miles.

The skiff deposited us on the terminal moraine facing the glacier, a layer of silt and rocks left by the receding ice. With the help of the trekking poles provided by the ship, we made our way through the most dazzling array of rocks I’ve ever seen – every conceivable size, shape and color, challenging what was left of the knowledge I had acquired from my ill-timed undergraduate geology course. I tried to pocket several of them but when I unloaded them in our cabin, they had somehow lost their luster. If you’ve even been a beachcomber, you’ll know the disappointment I’m describing. The jagged cliffs surrounding us, so recently under the ice, were already entering the next phase of their liberation. Moss, lichen, shrubs and even some small trees had already emerged. We were witnessing in miniature what the whole planet had experienced as it exited the last ice age. Just miles from our former home in New Hampshire the woods contained enormous unaccountable boulders which we learned had been deposited there by the receding glaciers. It was astonishing to think of what had once covered the places where we were now standing.

There’s more – bears, salmon, jelly fish, deer, sea birds – which I can’t address here without making this entry unwieldy. So, if you’re still with me, I’m going to save those for part 3 of our Alaskan adventures. So much to report from one short week’s excursion.

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Marv Hoffman

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