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Alaska: Up Close and Personal on a Small Ship

The old couple sitting on their porch wouldn’t stop staring at us. They didn’t even move when we trained our cameras on them. No, we weren’t being rude or intrusive. The old couple was a huge pair of bald eagles watching us from a tree stump as we kayaked into the Salt Chuck, an area of Port Houghton in Southeast Alaska, on an excursion from our small 78-passenger ship, the InnerSea Discoveries’ Wilderness Discoverer.

What a morning—water as calm as glass. The harbor seals popped up in the water as if on cue to say, “Come play!” Birds flew overhead. The mist lifted over the mountains. It was quintessential Alaska wilderness and it wasn’t raining!

We sat in our kayaks, mesmerized as a bear chomped on greens on shore, totally oblivious to our presence. Wow!

Our six-mile paddle—one of the most spectacular I’ve ever enjoyed anywhere—was just an example of how touring Southeast Alaska on a small ship is so different from the way most visitors see this region: from a giant cruise ship.

“We plan the itinerary so that we can stop like this,” said our captain, Dano Quinn, who has been piloting vessels in Alaska for the last 16 years. “The best of Alaska is the wilderness, not in the towns,” he added. “And we provide the opportunities for that.”

That’s why we anchored in pristine coves, not towns, and stopped to watch the humpback whales or a calved glacier in front of us. “You can see Alaska from the big ships and they will take good care of you,” said Second Mate Mike Kellick. “But with us, you can touch Alaska.”

Literally. Because of the landing dock on the back of our small ship, we could kayak for a half hour, or for two and a half hours. An “excursion” might be a hike following a bear’s trail, a walk through a meadow studded with wildflowers—purple lupine, red Indian paintbrush, brown chocolate lilies, yellow marigold—a snorkel in the frigid arctic water (cold even in heavy neoprene suits!) or stand-up paddleboarding. There was even the chance to take part in a polar plunge (requested by the teens on board)—a jump off the boat into the cold water (just 40-something degrees) followed by a soak in the deck hot tub, the wilderness all around you. I just wish they’d change the way passengers sign up for these activities so that families in separate cabins don’t find themselves closed out of activities they want to share.

Did I mention there’s no extra charge for these excursions? Though this “un-cruise” at first blush costs significantly more than a major cruise ship, in the end, it doesn’t, because you aren’t paying for pricey excursions that can double or even triple your cost.

And you wouldn’t get these kinds of opportunities on a major cruise ship. One evening, a group camped out so that they could experience the Alaska wilderness at night. “It was fun,” 12-year-old Miller Sinyard reported, even if the crew forgot the graham crackers for the s’mores. “We almost saw a bear,” he said. “I kind of wish we had.”

There were three multigenerational families on board and two youngsters, one of them Miller, were traveling just with their grandparents. Miller’s grandma, Carol Harrison, a 67-year-old widow from Georgia, brought Miller along with her son Todd and daughter-in-law Becky. It was her first “big” trip since her husband died several years ago. “I wanted Miller to not be too old to do a trip with me but old enough to do everything, and I didn’t want the parties and the crowds of the big ship. That isn’t what this is about.” The trip was such a success, she said, that she’s now going to get her passport renewed.

We were also traveling with extended family who has always wanted to explore Alaska. A trip like this certainly gives families plenty of time to share experiences and make memories, as long as you don’t mind giving up creature comforts.

Our cabin was tiny, with barely room to get around the bed. The bathroom was a combo unit with a shower and a toilet and just enough room to turn around. The food was plentiful, served buffet style, though we wished for more diverse menu options. (It seemed there was a mistake in ordering before our trip.)

For those who crave more luxury with their adventures, the company has a more upscale line, American Safari Cruises. You can even charter an entire yacht for your gang. Check out the trips to Mexico and Hawaii in winter and the special “Kids in Nature” sailings during the summer in Alaska and spring break in Hawaii and Mexico.

We didn’t spend much time in our cabin anyway. We were there to see the “real” Southeast Alaska, and we got what we came for, including dozens of whales as we cruised in Frederick Sound near Turnabout Island. They’re there for the summer, eating for 20 hours a day before they head to Hawaii for the winter.

A seal mom and her newborn pup floated along on a chunk of ice and an eagle flew overhead as we ventured out in a skiff driven by Capt. Quinn. We were off to explore the Dawes Glacier in Endicott Arm. Near one of the waterfalls, we spotted a mountain goat with a kid.

Some of the cliffs are 1,000 feet high. Yes, it is true that Glacier Bay is more famous—probably because that’s where all the big cruise ships go—but this place was spectacular and intimate.

We heard the glaciers calve—Crack! Boom!—and I understood why the native Tlingit people call glaciers “white thunder.” The glacier looked like blue cotton candy with chocolate sprinkles. In reality, it is more than 360 feet high and at least as much below the surface, Capt. Quinn told us.

John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, visited here and called this a “Wild Unfinished Yosemite,” and the high rock face certainly is reminiscent of that.

I wouldn’t have thought this trip would have been easy for someone with special challenges, but Kirsty Digger, a nursing professor from the East Coast who uses crutches and a wheelchair, said she was able to see a lot of Alaska from this vantage point, especially in the kayaks and skiffs that loaded right from the boat. “I didn’t think I would be able to see as much of Alaska on a big ship,” she explained.

Neither did the rest of us.

(c) 2012 Eileen Ogintz Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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