IPA Magazine-Luxury Travel Reviews

Wet and Wild in Southeast Alaska Aboard The Chichagof Dream

A cruise along the mountain-lined shores of Alaska’s Inside Passage is the best possible way to experience the rich cultural heritage and wildlife of this legendary, fascinating land.  Teeming with fish, mammals and birds, southeastern Alaska is actually a rainforest where there are some 310 days of precipitation.  Our eight days here at the end of May were, however, some of the sunniest of our visit, allowing us to explore adventures outdoors during a time of year where the sun never seems to set.

During our cruise, we asked many of the 35 passengers how they came to find out about Alaskan Dream Cruises.  Most said they had been searching the internet, looking for cruise lines that had solid reputations, excellent reviews, and offered an Alaskan perspective from a native point of view.  Although a third of the passengers were Kiwis and Aussies, another third were Alaskans!  It was the Alaskan passengers who told us that there was no better way to see the hard-to-get-to places accessible only by cruise ships of smaller size than the huge ocean liners that required large docking ports.  Our 74-passenger ship accessed several ports-of-call few other ships could navigate. In several instances, our Alaskan Dream Cruises vessel was the only tour boat of any size to dock in the area.  That meant having the entire town or village to ourselves with few distractions.

Southeast Alaska is also known as the state’s panhandle, home to Juneau (the state capital), Sitka (the old capital of Russian Alaska) and Ketchikan (the first Alaska port of call for large cruise ships heading north).

Getting to Sitka, home of Alaskan Dream Cruises, started with a quick, two-hour flight from Seattle. Although our 8-day cruise was to begin on Sunday, we arrived the day before to allow some extra time to get situated in the historic town of some 8,900 souls.

Sensational Sitka

Former capital of Russian Alaska, trading post, and bustling Pacific port community, Sitka is rich with history and culture, both Russian and Tlingit.

2017 marks the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Cession between Russia and the United States on March 30, 1867.  Later that year, on October 18, the official transfer ceremony took place on Castle Hill in Sitka, where now, 150 years later, ceremonies, a period costume ball, dances, dinners, contests and a parade are scheduled to take place.

Sitka is a recreational wonderland where fishing, sea kayaking, golf, hiking, biking and wildlife exploration opportunities abound.  Fishing is at its very best between June and August.  The most common species are king, silver and pink salmon, halibut, and ling cod.  The local waters have the highest saltwater catch rate for King Salmon in the state of Alaska, not to mention world-class halibut fishing. A list of charter operators for fishing and sightseeing is available from the Sitka Visitors Information Center.  A processor in town can freeze and vacuum pack your catch for the trip home.

Our visit coincided with Sitka Salmon Derby, held during the two weekends around Memorial Day where fishermen compete for tens of thousands of dollars in cash and prizes.  Of the five types of salmon species, King salmon arrive first, and are the most elusive.  Anglers after kings often go home empty-handed, but the lucky few will have the fight of a lifetime.

Alaskan Dream Cruises believes its guests should have ample opportunity to explore the rich history and biodiversity of Southeast Alaska’s only “outer coast” community.  From our hotel room Sunday morning we were shuttled to the cruiseline’s downtown Hospitality Room where guests from several different Alaskan Dream Cruises converge to find refreshment, instruction, and a jumping off point for local tours or, if their tour had just concluded, transportation back to the airport.

On this day we met our Naturalist and Guide, Mr. Simon Hook, who shepherded us on a three-hour tour of Sitka.  Hook studied at University of Missouri at Kansas City and possesses a deep love of nature and a curiosity that branches into many areas of science from microbiology to animal behavior and geology.  He is also an expert photographer, and his camera’s telescopic lens was to come in very handy later in the week when he presented a photographic summary of all the sights and experiences we had.

Sitka is a village that measures distances from its single downtown stoplight. (For example, it is one mile from the stop light to the Raptor Center, two miles to the airport, five miles to the ferry terminal and seven miles to the Bear Fortress.) The road system spans fourteen miles total along the coast with seven miles of road on either side of the downtown area.  From the Hospitality Room, our tour group of about thirty persons hopped aboard a charter bus to take us to four particularly charming highlights of Sitka.

Our first stop was the Alaska Raptor Center, Alaska’s only full-service avian hospital and educational facility that attracts nearly 35,000 (human) visitors every year.  Here we visited the Bald Eagle Flight Training Center, opened in 2003, where in a controlled setting birds can regain muscle strength to fly long distances for flight and survival in the wild.  In North America there are 6 different kinds of raptors: Eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, osprey and kites.  There are some 150,000 bald eagles today in the US, and one-third of them are in Alaska with about 33,000 in southeastern Alaska.  Other birds of prey from around the state that are on-site include great-horned owls, golden eagles and red-tailed hawks.

“Our guests visit Alaska in search of a personal connection to the places and people.”  Alaskan Dream Cruises

After about an hour’s visit, we re-boarded our bus and headed back to the center of town to find St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Built from 1844-1848, the structure was made of spruce logs with an outer layer of clapboard.  When the town of Sitka was named “New Archangel” by the Russians, it was in honor of St. Michael, the winged protector and holy warrior after whom the church is named.  But on January 2, 1966 tragedy struck the cathedral.  A devastating fire that burned much of downtown Sitka also destroyed the church.  Scores of local people rushed into the cathedral and forming human chains were able to remove most of the treasure including artwork and icons. Nearly all the treasured ecclesiastical items were rescued and placed in the new Cathedral.  Ten years later, in November 1976, the church had been totally rebuilt with fire-resistant materials, using the Cathedral’s original blueprints.  Today the church with its onion dome, bells and spire topped by a gold Russian cross outside has been designated a National Historical Monument where liturgical services are still held for a congregation that is 90% Tlingit as well as other native cultures.

From the cathedral we headed for Whale Park for a brief photo session of the harbor (unfortunately, no whales were spotted).  November is peak season for whale watching when during Sitka WhaleFest the surrounding waters are teeming with humpback whales prior to their winter migration.  Of the estimated 22,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific, approximately 5,000-7,000 spend the summer feeding in Southeast Alaska.  Nearly half of those may pass through and feed in Frederick Sound (on the eastern side of Sitka’s Baranov Island) before taking the 2,800 mile journey back to Hawaii in the fall for the birth of their calves.

Next we visited Fortress of the Bear, a refuge for orphaned brown bear cubs that would otherwise be euthanized. The state of Alaska has no bear rehabilitation program so orphaned cubs are routinely shot by the Dept. of Fish and Game for lack of an alternative. In 2007 the first residents arrived at Alaska’s only bear rescue where now eight resident bears have found a home.  The center has a long-term goal of rehabilitating orphan bear cubs to be released back out into the wild where they belong.  It is also home to the only three black bears in Sitka. Here one can get to within 25 feet of Alaska’s brown bears and black bears in a safe, naturalized setting.

Seeing the amazing animals of Alaska tops the “to do” list of most visitors to the panhandle. While other tours of Sitka may have included stops to the Sitka National Historic Park, Sheldon Jackson Museum, and other worthy sites, we were all delighted to see wildlife close-up before seeing them again in the wild from our cruise ship and sea kayaks. People in Alaska live in close contact with wildlife and Alaskan Dream Cruises has, as its stated purpose, True Alaskan Hospitality immersing you in the wildlife of True Alaska.

Dinner Sunday night:  Ginger Carrot soup, Garden Salad, Pork Tenderloin, Halibut, Vegetarian (Squash).  Dessert: Cheesecake.

Meet Cultural Heritage Guide Howard Gray, a native Tlingit named Koo Hook.

Wildlife seen first day: Brown bears, winter wren, bald eaglets, banana slug, ravens, mink whale seal

Saginaw Bay and Village of Kake

Breakfast Choice of omelet,  two eggs, pancakes, bagel and lox, cereal and French Toast. Frittata was the breakfast special of the day.

After breakfast we split into groups of about a dozen to get on inflatable rafts for wildlife education on the beach and to go sea kayaking in the harbor.  In our case we first donned life jackets and jumped into two-person sea kayak.  We were launched from a platform off the ship so we wouldn’t get our feet wet and proceeded to paddle effortlessly around Saginaw Bay for 40 minutes, thoroughly enjoying the views of surrounding snow-capped mountains and the smell of the saltwater.  We returned our kayaks to the Chichagof Dream and just an hour later boarded our DIB (Demaree Inflatable Boat) a 20-person sturdy pontoon-style inflatable, motorized  raft with a metal floor and headed for the beach on Northern Kuiu (pron. “koo-you”) Island.  Here Simon met us for an educational walk along the rocky beach where tide pools teemed with aquatic life.

Lunch tomato soup, chicken and dumplings or Cobb salad, apple and raspberry crisp with a dollop of vanilla ice cream

Next we headed off toward the northwest coast of Kupreanof Island to visit the village of Kake, population 550.  Kake (pron. “cake”) is a modern Tlingit village with 550 inhabitants, about 100 of whom are school age children.  In Tlingit, the village name means “mouth of dawn” or, “opening of daylight.”  The tribe inhabited the region for thousands of years, finding an abundance of food and fish.  Because of its location at the foot of Frederick Sound, hundreds of humpbacked whales are attracted here each summer, so that it is now considered one of Alaska’s premier whale watching areas.  Once we docked our ship, Falen, a local resident came aboard to give us an overview of modern Tlingit life and a brief history of how many of her people are learning to speak in their native language.  Tlingit has 42 consonants and 8 vowels and requires an extraordinary amount of time and dedication to learn, especially for those who did not learn to speak it as their primary language while growing up.  Many years ago, white settlers in Alaska forced the Tlingit to learn English, sending their young to segregated boarding schools and causing the native language to nearly die out.  Today there is a revival of interest among the Tlingit to learn about their culture and heritage.  “Chichagof Dreamers” (as Koo Hook called us) boarded a local charter bus and headed into an area of town where we stopped for lessons on carving totem poles and basket weaving.  Next we visited the World’s Tallest Totem Pole at 128 feet tall, carved in 1960. From there we entered the local high school gymnasium for an entertaining display of costumed Tlingit performers  who put on a show of native dancing.

“They are of constant courage.  As daring navigators they are unsurpassed, sailing six or seven hundred miles in their open canoes.  Some are thrifty, and show a sense of property.  Some have developed an aptitude for trade unknown to their northern neighbors or to the Indians of the United States…. Their superior nature discards corporal punishment, even for boys, as an ignominy not to be endured.  They believe in a Creator and in the immortality of the soul.  But here a mystic fable is woven into their faith.  The spirits of heroes dead in battle are placed in the sky and appear in the Aurora Borealis.”  –Senator Charles Sumner, describing the Tlingit people leading up to the purchase of Alaska in 1867

Day 2 sightings: Sea otter, porpoise, blood worm, sea star, juvenile eagle, bald eagle, marbled murrelet, pigeon guillemots, lion’s mane jelly fish, chitons, sea anemones, humpback whale.

Dinner: Potato Leek soup, Spinach Salad, Choice of King Salmon or Rack of Lamb.  Dessert: Salted caramel Crème Brûlée

Alaska’s Little Norway

In the 1890s Norwegian immigrant Peter Buschmann arrived on Mitkof Island and founded what was to become the eponymous Petersburg, incorporated in 1910.  Buschmann noticed the clean and plentiful ice of the nearby Le Conte Glacier could serve as a source for fish packing.  Many Norwegians followed Buschmann to the snowy mountains and fjords that reminded them of home.  The Icy Straits Packing Company was founded in 1897 with

Buschmann as manager.  A sawmill was built and began cutting lumber for the building of a cannery, completed in 1900.  In 1916, Alaskan Glacier Seafoods was established, becoming Alaska’s first shrimp processor.  Fishing continues to be the leading industry of the community with some $51 million in seafood processed in 2015.

Shopkeeper’s Joke in Petersburg: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

Today Petersburg is home port for approximately 600 commercial fishing vessels of several distinct types.  Longliners use a series of hooks strung out on long lines across the ocean floor to catch bottom dwelling fish such as halibut and black cod.  Seiners catch large quantities of salmon (called humpies) the primary product in the canned salmon market.  A skiff sets out with one end of the net and circles around the seine to close the loop and trap salmon. Trollers run multi-hook lines from poles as the vessels move through fishing grounds.  They catch Kings (or Chinook), the big money fish and also Coho (or silvers) which usually bring a good price and return to their spawning grounds somewhat later in the season than kings.  Gillnetters target sockeye (reds), chums (dogs), and occasionally Coho.  They use 150-fathom driftnets to catch fish sold for restaurant and specialty use.  Their price per-pound is higher than that of seine-caught fish , but not quite as high as troll-caught salmon.  Crabbers use pots around 45 pounds for Dungeness crab, and over 500 pounds for the tanner and king crab (red, blue, or golden) fisheries.  Crab boats use booms and power blocks to lower and raise the heavy crab pots to the ocean floor.

The Sons of Norway Hall was built in 1912 and declared a National Historical Site in 1979.  The Sons of Norway is an international fraternal organization set up to preserve Norwegian heritage.  Built on pilings, the hall’s decorative Rosemaling figures are painted both on the interior and exterior walls, a traditional Norwegian art form. Inside, we enjoyed folk dancing performed by Petersburg’s school-age children, sampled 3 local traditional pastries with tea and coffee, then took time to explore the quaint little community on foot, with additional hiking opportunities nearby.  Several of us joined our Cultural Heritage guide for a 50-minute bog walk through the park to learn more about the flora and fauna and to enjoy the spectacular views.

After dinner on Tuesday night, our naturalist Simon Hook gave an illustrated talk on “Birds of the Inside Passage.”  He described the characteristics and behavior of about 40 different species.

Fascinating Facts About Alaska and the Chichagof Dream

The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word “Aleyeska,” meaning “great land.”  The following list describes some of the leading Alaska “State” symbols of its identity: Motto: North to the Future; Nickname: The Last Frontier; Fish: King Salmon; Marine Mammal: Bowhead Whale; Land animal: Moose; Flower: Forget Me Not; Tree: Sitka Spruce; Mineral: Gold; Gem: Jade; Sport: Dog Mushing.

There are 5 types of Alaska salmon species: Chum, Sockeye, Coho, Chinook and Pink Salmon.  An easy mnemonic device, the five finger method, can help a person remember them all.

  1. Use the rhyming word thumb to remind you of the Chum salmon.
  2. Point your index finger and gesture forward, as though you’re about to “sock” someone in the eye. This is how you remember the Sockeye salmon.
  3. Your middle finger, or the “oh no” finger, will help you remember the Coho salmon.
  4. Form your index finger into a hook to remember the Chinook salmon.
  5. The pinky finger can help you remember the Pink salmon, the most common salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

The Chichagof Dream is the fifth ship in the Alaskan Dream Cruises fleet and is one of the biggest single projects in the company’s history. The Chichagof Dream takes its name from the last of the three “ABC” islands that figure so prominently in our voyage: They are Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof islands.  The M/V Chichagof Dream was built in 1984 and renovated by the owners in 2015-2016.  Its length is 201 ft., with a beam of 37 ft. and draft of 8.5 ft.  It is powered by two Detroit 12V92 engines with total propulsion power of 1,000 horsepower and cruises at a top speed of 8 knots.  Its crew of 27 serves up to 74 passengers.

Itineraries of 8, 9, 10, & 11 –day Southeast Alaskan cruises have differing emphases, leaving from Sitka, Ketchikan and Juneau, avoiding the big ship ports except for embarkation and disembarkation points.  Admiralty Dream and Baranof Dream are three deckers, while Chichagof Dream and the catamaran Alaskan Dream have four.  None have an elevator.  Misty Fjord, available for charter, has two decks.

The lounge aboard the vessel offers substantial space for travelers to gather during the day and in the evenings to have informative meetings, enjoy morning pastries and afternoon cookies, relax with an evening cocktail, and share stories with fellow passengers.   Shelves along one wall of the lounge are used for Alaskan Dream Cruises gifts and souvenirs as well for providing a nicely stocked library of books about Alaska including geology, history and wildlife.  Also in the lounge are two wall-mounted television screens displaying a constantly updated GPS map showing our location relative to the islands and coast as we moved along.

Each Chichagof Dream cabin features comfortable bedding, wide picture windows or portholes, and a private bathroom. Select cabins can accommodate third and fourth guests. The staterooms have built-in wood cabinetry for storage and a huge view window.  Our queen bed was comfortable and allowed us to view wildlife while in bed.  In the side tables next to our bed there were extra electrical outlets for charging phones and tablets as well as a USB charging port.

Dress aboard ship is always casual.  Information about each day’s activities and schedule are communicated in several ways.  Announcements of upcoming events are made at the end of every meal in the dining room.  In the evenings, a one-page, printed program is delivered to each stateroom and also posted in the Lounge or Dining room.  Twenty-four hour self-service coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and hot cider are available in the Lounge and Dining Room.  All water onboard is safe to drink, including the water from the faucet in each stateroom.  Electrical current is standard 110 volts.  Luggage can be stored under the bed or in the closets.  Extra pillows and blankets are available.  Ventilation, heating and air conditioning adjustments can be made in each stateroom. Staterooms also have a speaker for emergency and informational purposes, such as the good morning announcement, wildlife sightings, and a narrative of each day’s schedule.  Each room’s speaker has an adjustable volume knob. Fresh towels are provided every day and shampoo and liquid hand soap are also provided. There is a hair dryer in every bathroom.  Hint: Bring your own hair conditioner as none is provided.

One unusual feature aboard the Chichagof Dream is the Himalayan crystal “Salt Room, “ the first of its kind among ships in the world. The walls and deck of the room are solid bricks of Himalayan salt, which is believed to have formed about 250 million years ago when a primordial sea became trapped and slowly dehydrated.  The salt bricks are back-lit, showcasing the orange, glowing kaleidoscopic patterns of the crystal.  It is believed the salt naturally creates negative ions which rid the air of positive ions by which floating allergens and dust-borne illnesses are carried and ingested. The naturopathic room, enhanced by Juneau-based Glacier Salt Cave & Spa, is said to help with respiratory conditions.  Many people who use the room notice that their stress level is relieved, allergies cleared, sinus ailments alleviated, inflammation reduced and a general sense of well-being ensues.

Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness Area

If you are like most visitors to Alaska, you want to see a glacier.  Seeing a glacier in a photo or a movie clip is definitely not the same as experiencing one in person.  Few people will ever forget their first time visiting a glacier in one of Alaska’s national parks.  Glaciers cover about 5% of the state of Alaska and are in nine of Alaska’s fifteen national parks.

The Tracy Arm fjords is an area of southeast Alaska John Muir referred to as, “A wild, unfinished Yosemite,” of which he added, “no ice work I have ever seen surpasses this, either in the magnitude of the features or effectiveness of composition.”  Considered one of the most spectacular glacial fjords in the world, Tracy Arm is the northernmost of three fjords: Tracy, Endicott, and Ford’s Terror, located about 45 miles southeast of Juneau. The Tracy Arm glacial fjords are 32 miles long and average a mile wide, renowned for pristine waterfalls, towering icebergs, and cliffs that rise from sea level to 7,000 feet.  Snowfall in this area often exceeds 100 feet per year. Wildlife viewings in the area often find mountain goats on the rocky cliffs, bears foraging the tide-lines and seals among the ice flows.  We particularly enjoyed seeing the sea otters performing their daily tasks such as eating, bathing, and sleeping while floating on their backs.

“[Tracy Arm] fjord is …shut in by sublime Yosemite cliffs, nobly sculptured, and adorned with waterfalls and fringes of trees, bushes, and patches of flowers; but amid so crowded a display of novel beauty it was not easy to concentrate the attention long enough on any portion of it without giving more days and years than our lives could afford…” John Muir, 1880

We traveled up Endicott Arm to find Dawes Glacier at the end of this fjord.  A fjord is a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley.  The glacier itself is a massive river of ice.  Some in Alaska are advancing while others, like this one, are retreating.  Periodically, glaciers calve great shards of ice that break off and form diamond-like bergs.  Several were bluish in color, ranging from a pale, sky blue to a deep, almost violet blue.

Blue Ice, White Ice

“Glacier ice is made up of large, tightly packed ice crystals.  When sunlight hits glacier ice, the ice acts like a prism and separates the light according to its wavelength.  Low energy colors like red and yellow are absorbed by the ice.  Blue has enough energy to reflect out to our eyes.” The Fairweather Visitor Guide, 12

Our group boarded a DIB (Demaree Inflatable Boat) and motored toward the face of the glacier, some 3 miles ahead of where we anchored.  Along the way dodging chunks of ice, we spotted harbor seals riding small ice flows for short distances.  Gulls occupied other bergs of ice, lazily floating by. Winding ribbons of water cascaded down both sides of the fjord and Arctic terns circled overhead as our motorized raft approached the face of the glacier.  Whenever a giant hunk of ice broke off the glacier, a loud “boom” sound was heard a couple seconds later.  Sometimes the sound was like a cannon.  At other times it sounded like a gunshot.  The Tlingit called the sound “white thunder.”  Zodiacs from a nearby National Geographic ship scouted the area along with us getting as close as possible without endangering their vessels. Icebergs (defined as a berg of ice 16 feet or higher above sea level) have been known to suddenly rollover and crush whatever might be beside them.

…great blue bergs rise up from below—born of the depths.  The enormous pressure to which their particles have been subjected for many centuries seems to have intensified their color.  They have a pristine, elemental look.  Their crystals have not seen the light since they fell in snowflakes back amid the mountains generations ago.  All this time imprisoned, traveling in darkness, carving the valleys, polishing the rocks, under a weight as of mountains, till at last their deliverance comes with crash and roar and they are once more free to career in the air and light as dew or rain or cloud, and then again to be drawn into that cycle of transformation and caught and bound once more in glacier chains for another century.”  -John Burroughs, 1899

Wednesday meals: Breakfast special: Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. Lunch: Barbecue featuring buffet style pulled pork, chicken, ribs, potato salad, baked macaroni, cole slaw,

Dinner: Cajun style Yelloweye fish etouffe, collard greens.  Dessert: chocolate pannacotta

Evening talk by Simon: Great Bears of Alaska: The characteristics of black bears and brown bears.

A Legacy of Boatbuilding

Bob and Betty Allen are the founders of Allen Marine, southeastern Alaska’s premier boat builders and tour operators.  Today the Allen family continues this impressive legacy, having designed and constructed over 100 vessels in their Sitka shipyard.  During the visitor season, its tour business operates over 30 boats and employs well over 400 people conducting daily and week-long tours throughout Southeast Alaska.  Over the past 40 years, the Allen family has built up one of the largest marine wildlife tour businesses in the world.

On January 25, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully put his damaged US Airways jet with 155 passengers aboard into the Hudson River—“The Miracle on the Hudson.”  Inside of four minutes, the first rescue boat pulled up to the floating fuselage. Soon the jet was surrounded by a dozen passenger ferries, half of them built by Allen Marine of Sitka, Alaska. The operating characteristics of these one-of-a-kind tour vessels so impressed NY Waterways of Weehawken, New Jersey, that the Allens had been commissioned to build a total of 19 passenger ferries. The Alaskan boats were said to be much more maneuverable that the other six boats involved, and the rapid response time was critical in reaching passengers from Flight 1549, some of whom might otherwise have been lost.  There were other times the Sitka-built boats were also handy in emergencies.  On September 11, 2001 (911), the boats were used to evacuate 200,000 New Yorkers stranded on the lower part on Manhattan.  Two years after 9/11, Allen Marine boats helped evacuate close to another 200,000 New Yorkers from Manhattan, this time trapped by the “Northeast Blackout of 2003.”

Today, in the front yard of Bob and Betty Allen’s home on the east shore of Jamestown Bay, a captivating family totem pole overlooks the sheltered waters of the bay.  The totem is the handiwork of renowned Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson of Ketchikan, Alaska who took about six months to complete the project.

Tlingit

The Tlingit language may be characterized as descriptive and metaphorical. Activities, events and history are recounted through oral traditions. Around 1750, great glacier advancement forced many of the Tlingit from their homes in the area around present Glacier Bay, forcing them to move.  Most stories tend to be proprietary, belonging to either an elder entrusted with keeping an accurate version of an historical anecdote, or belonging to the individual who actually had a unique experience that only he or she could tell.  Tlingit gathered often to attend weddings, births and deaths. Potlatch events commemorated important events where gift giving, singing and dancing were prominently featured.  In 1799 the Russians arrived in Sitka attracted to the abundant sea otter pelts which were tremendously valuable.  Lacking a thick layer of blubber, otters instead have the densest fur of any mammal with up to one million hairs per square inch.  At first the Russian presence was tolerated, for they traded guns, sugar and tobacco.  However by 1802 Tlingit warriors attacked a Russian outpost and killed nearly all its occupants.  In 1804 the Russians returned in force and the Tlingit retreated into the forest.  But by 1821 the Tlingit returned to Sitka and the Russians began introducing them to their cultural practices and the Russian Orthodox Faith.

Contrary to popular understanding, there is no hierarchy in the arrangement of the images on a totem pole.  Hence, not all poles “tell a story,” and there is no significance of being “low man on the totem pole.”  Most are heraldic, providing in symbolic fashion a summation of the clan or family origins. From the top of the pole there are six images: Eagle, Wolf, Canoe Builder, Brown Bear, Copper Shield, and Bentwood Box (Brown Bear relief carving).
The eagle indicates the family’s moiety. Tlingit culture (Betty Allen is Tlingit and Russian) is matrilineal: both men and women trace their clan affiliations through the mother’s line.  It is organized into two equal halves, the Raven (Yeil’) and the Eagle (Chaak’) moieties.  Traditionally, one would marry a person of the opposite moiety. The next image, Wolf, is the predominant crest of the Kaagwaantaan Clan.

One of the many unique features of the pole is the carved figure of a man carefully cradling a canoe in his cupped hands.  This figure is representative of the family’s boatbuilding legacy, a tradition that extends back thousands of years to Betty’s Tlingit ancestors.  These ancestors carved canoes for the vital purpose of navigating river systems to trade with interior tribes.  Much later, her great-great grandfather, a Russian-American colonist, built ships for the famed explorer Alexander Baranov.  Bob is also from a long line of shipbuilding men, who worked in shipyards from California to Alaska. As Bob explains, the canoe offered by the outstretched hands of the man on the totem embodies this unique family history of bringing boats to the people.  The base of the totem is a Bentwood Box, which typically holds items of great value.  It implies that the Allens are a family of status.

Tlingit Names

Tlingit natives introduce themselves with seven names.  Koo Hook, our cultural guide, shared his names with us in the following order: Moiety: Yeil’ (raven); Clan: Takwaaneidi (people of the winter—crests include strongman, woodworm, & sea lion); Clan origin: Hecate island off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island; House: taan hit (sea lion house); Child of Wooshkeetaan (shark crest of Glacier bay); Granchild of T’akdeintaan (kittiwake & Mt. Fairweather crests from Glacier Bay and the Fairweather Range); Village Affiliation: Xunaa Kaawu (Hoonah people).

Taku Harbor & Orca Point Lodge

Salmon and herring processing employed over 200 people in the early 1900s in this area.  The small community included a school house and post office, along with shacks for the managers of the cannery.  Automated machinery appeared in the 1930s and when a fire burned the cannery to the ground there was little reason to rebuild it.  Today Taku Harbor is a ghost town, but still offers a safe harbor from storms between Tracy Arm and Juneau.

After breakfast, several passengers disembarked our vessel for a walk among the ruins with Simon and also found time to take out a sea kayak to explore the harbor. After lunch, we motored over to Allen Marine’s Orca Point Lodge.

Lunch:  Clam Chowder, Waldorf Salad, Fish and Chips.  Dessert: Chocolate Mousse

Our evening was spent at Orca Point Lodge on Colt Island, Allen Marine’s exclusive property, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal of prime rib and fresh Alaskan seafood, including a King Crab feast and barbecued salmon. Guests enjoyed chocolate fondue for dessert, then strolled out to Orca Point and made S’mores around a beachside campfire.  For many (including myself and my wife) this meal of “all you can eat” King Crab was the best!  Several folks chose to miss previous meals that day and to avoid all other foods on the menu that night in order to savor King Crab only, finding themselves in a “Crab Coma” by the end of the evening.  (One crewmember confided to me that Allen Marine has spent up to $180,000 on crab alone for this once-per-vessel King Crab feast annually!)

Glacier Bay National Park

Once we arrived in Glacier Bay, Lee, a Hoonah Tlingit Cultural Heritage Guide joined our tour group.  Our guide told local stories and provided information regarding the area’s original native inhabitants. The Tlingit have traditionally occupied much of Southeast Alaska; from Yakutat in the North to Ketchikan in the South. Oral history and scientific findings indicate that the ancestors of the Hoona Tlingit occupied Glacier Bay long before the last great glacial advance.  Rebecca, a National Park Ranger further explained the natural history and wildlife of the Park, a pristine habitat for both brown and black bears, wolves, mountain goats, Steller sea lions and humpback whales.

Glacier Bay National Park is comprised of 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forests, and waterways, and is located west of Juneau. The park and preserve are reached only by boat or plane.  The Park headquarters, visitor center and Glacier Bay Lodge are near the mouth of the bay, 65 miles from Juneau at Bartlett Cove.  It is another 55 miles from there to the tidewater glaciers.  Grand Pacific Glacier is at the furthest northwestern point of the bay just a mile from the Canadian border.    It rises 60-180 feet above the waterline and descends to 60 feet below, having a width of 2 miles and length of 34.5 miles.  Slowly receding, it is thinning at a flow rate of 1-4 feet per day (350-1200 feet per year).  Our ship came within one-quarter mile of this glacier, the closest distance allowable.  Perpendicular to the Grand Pacific Glacier is the Margerie Glacier, the crowning jewel of Glacier Bay National Park, a 21-mile long glacier over a mile wide at its face.  It rises 250 feet above the waterline and descends 5-100 feet below.  It has become world-renowned for its dramatic calving displays.  Glaciers can calve from above and below the waterline.  Compared to glacial ice, seawater is warmer, constantly at work eroding the glacier.  Waves and tides cause huge chunks to break off or calve into the ocean.  Underwater tongues of ice may suddenly break off and shoot to the surface.

Glacier Bay is Home for Humpback Whales

“These giants of Glacier Bay’s water are 40-50 feet long and weight over 35 tons.  Most Glacier Bay whales migrate to Hawaii each winter to mate and give birth, a 2,500 mile journey that takes about a month.  During the winter, they do not eat.  During the summer, whales gorge themselves on high-calorie small schooling fish such as capelin.  Bountiful Glacier Bay draws the whales back every year.”  The Fairweather Visitor Guide, 34

A glacier is essentially a massive river of ice, miles long and thousands of feet deep, advancing or receding between mountain ranges, as if on a giant conveyor belt. In 1794, when Captain George Vancouver of the H.M.S. Discovery sailed along Icy Strait, Glacier Bay as we now know it did not yet exist.  It was covered by a single massive wall of ice.  However, when conservationist John Muir visited the area by canoe eighty-five years later in 1879, the ice had receded 40 miles from where it stood at the time of Vancouver’s visit.  Muir, a popular author, returned four times over the next 15 years and described Glacier Bay in such a captivating fashion that he changed America’s perception of Alaska from one of a frozen ice box to that of enchanting beauty, attracting thousands of tourists to Glacier Bay.  Today, Glacier Bay now extends 65 miles from Point Gustavus at the mouth to the tidewater glaciers in Tarr Inlet.  Fewer than a dozen small tidewater glaciers remain, calving great shards of ice that crash into sea, creating the sound known as “white thunder.” Today there is now 11 percent less glacial ice in Glacier Bay than there was in 1950.  However, heavy snowfall in the Fairweather Mountains means that Glacier Bay remains home to a few stable glaciers, a rarity in today’s world.

“The Master Builder chose for a tool, not the thunder and lightning to rend and split asunder, not the stormy torrent nor the eroding rain, but the tender snowflake, noiselessly falling through unnumbered generations.”  -John Muir

Captain’s Dinner: Soup, Salad, Halibut Cheek, and Prime Tenderloin.Lunch: Okra soup, Paella.

Dessert: Chocolate mousse

After Dinner in the lounge: All-you-can-eat dessert extravaganza!

Docking in Juneau

Our journey concluded Sunday morning as we arrived in Alaska’s capital city that sits on the edge of Gastineau Channel, deep within Southeast’s Inside Passage.  There are no road connections to Juneau—everyone enters and departs by ferry, cruise ship or airplane.

After breakfast, our luggage was transported to our hotels in Juneau. We disembarked the Chichagof Dream, sadly waving farewell to all her crew, and boarded buses to take us into downtown Juneau.  Alaskan Dream Cruises Hospitality Suite in Juneau is located in the Baranov Hotel, downtown. There, passengers may book a room, or await their outgoing flight prior to catching a shuttle to the airport.  We used the rest of the day to visit Juneau, walking the docks beside the huge cruise liners and checking out opportunities for sightseeing.  Visitors here may explore Douglas Island, Mendenhall glacier and the city’s gold-mining history.  One may also see the capitol, or ride the tram up Mount Roberts.  We chose to take a seaplane on a 40-minute “flightseeing” tour over five glaciers http://www.ipamag.com/soar-like-an-eagle-taku-glacier-flightseeing-with-wings-airways/ .  We also toured the Alaska Brewing Company and enjoyed beer tasting.

Other passengers on our cruise who were not scheduled to return home opted to head toward Denali, home to North America’s highest peak.  Denali National Park is one of Alaska’s most popular destinations.  Approximately 500,000 people visit annually.  The entire park covers nearly 9,500 square miles of wilderness.  It is accessible via the Parks Highway or by air.

What Passengers Liked About Alaskan Dream Cruises

During our week aboard the Chichagof Dream, we had ample opportunity to listen to passenger comments about their experiences both on and off ship.  Nearly everyone at some point commented that there was a considerable difference in cruising on a smaller vessel than a large, multi-story cruise ship.  Our smaller ship accessed several ports where larger ships simply could not dock.  Thus we were able to visit ports such as Petersburg, Kake, and Taku Harbor, affording us historical, cultural and experiential opportunities unavailable to passengers on large ships.  Additionally, our local guides, Naturalist Simon Hook and Cultural Heritage expert

Koo Hook, were constantly available to interpret wildlife sightings, local customs, history and traditions, and provide a more “hands on” experience where we could get “up close and personal” with our constantly changing environment than could be achieved aboard a large cruise liner.  With these two on-board local guides, in addition to yet more guides brought on board, Alaskan Dream Cruises truly lived up to its tagline: “True Alaska with True Alaskans.”

Communication with the passengers was performed with excellence. Throughout the week, our guides would announce over the ship’s public address system animal sightings at various locations in relationship to the ship, i.e., “There’s an orca at one o’clock!”  Since we were able to turn a dial on or off in our rooms to hear the PA system, passengers often rushed out of their cabins to various points on the ship in order to view the wildlife that was spotted.  Our guides also announced that if passengers wished to be awakened at night to see the “Northern Lights” (not normally visible this time of year in late May) they could sign up on a list. Our guides patiently answered questions all day long.  Announcements after each meal alerted us to upcoming activities.  After dinner each evening, a schedule of the next day’s activities appeared on our beds in our cabins, alongside a chocolate for each person.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.”  –Albert Einstein

Alaskan Dream Cruises also outfitted each of us with rain gear, including a jacket with hood, waterproof pants and boots that could be worn outdoors when hiking and exploring on rafts and sea kayaks.  Although we were fortunate most of the week not to be inundated with rain, there were several times, particularly near the glaciers, when the moist and cold environment required extra protective gear.  Binoculars, so necessary for spotting whales, porpoises, seals, otters, bears, birds and other creatures, were available in each room as well as in the lounge and dining room.  Frequently, during meals, someone would spot a whale, porpoise, or other creature during a meal or while in the lounge, alerting others who would quickly grab a nearby set of binoculars.  Without having a set of binoculars nearby at all times, passengers would miss most of the opportunities to get a glimpse of wildlife. There were also two mounted telescopes in the lounge to enhance long-distance viewing.

Small ship cruising provides the perfect setting to forge friendships with fellow cruisers that can last a lifetime.  Alaskan Dream Cruises provided a brief passenger information sheet so we might better learn the names and hometowns of our fellow travelers.  Additionally, name tags on lanyards were provided to make introductions easier.  At the end of our journey passengers were invited to sign up for Simon’s photos to be emailed to them, and passengers could also exchange email addresses with one another if they so chose.

The crew aboard the Chichagof Dream was truly top-notch.  We were greeted warmly with huge smiles by each crew member, from the time we boarded ship and throughout our entire stay.  Crew members were constantly at work, fetching, polishing, serving, cleaning, greeting, helping, explaining, and offering to fulfill the request of any passenger at any time.  Crew members always worked together as a team.  If one crew member could not immediately fulfill a request, another was nearby to assist.  Servers at the tables consistently said “yes” to any request.  Special orders were common at every meal. We sat at a table for six one morning and I noticed that all six of our orders were combination orders, involving substitutions and additions of items found on the menu.

Last, but not least, passengers consistently lauded the quality, variety, presentation and taste of every meal.  Breakfasts included six daily choices along with a daily special.  Specials for breakfast included frittata, Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, and quiche.  Lunches and Dinners always featured daily special soups, specially created salads, and entrees of meat, fish or a unique vegetarian dish.  Desserts were served after every lunch and dinner.  Pastries, muffins and fruit were available every morning before breakfast and some sort of cookie, brownie, or other sweet treat was served around 3:00 in the afternoon.  At 5:30 appetizers were available in the lounge.  Every dish served throughout the entire voyage was unique and unrepeated.  Fresh fish selections included halibut, various kinds of salmon, cod, yelloweye, and others.  There were always alternatives available if you did not like the specials on the printed menus.  At lunch, for example, you could always order a ½ pound Angus hamburger served with potato chips.  House salads with choice of dressing were available.  At dinner, a top sirloin steak was always available.  On at least two occasions, I chose to have “surf and turf,” combining the fish special of the evening along with a top sirloin steak.

A cruise is not like visiting a zoo.  City-dwellers face an adjustment period on board ship, expecting wild animals to appear on command.  Patience is required, but it eventually pays off.  I spent a few long periods of time after someone spotted a whale in the distance, peering into my binoculars, finding nothing.  However, my patience was eventually rewarded, again and again.  In the morning of our disembarkation in Juneau, a humpback whale kept appearing near our boat, 100 yards away.  No binoculars were required.  The “oohs” and “ahhs” roared out from the dining room as passengers dropped their forks and headed over to the large picture windows.  Our cruise was also exceptional in that we saw a pair of wolves, a white one and a dark brown one, in Glacier Bay.  They were visible on the shoreline for a considerable amount of time.  It required binoculars to get a good view of them.  Every crew member and both our naturalists exclaimed that they had NEVER seen wolves here before.  Their excitement was palpable and contagious.  The contagion of seeing wild animals lasted the entire week.  Periodically, throughout the day, whether we were on a skiff, sea kayak, in the lounge or in the dining room, someone would declare that there was a sighting.  Naturally, the whales, porpoises, wolves and bears were the highlights—the larger animals seem to attract the greatest attention.  But we saw birds like puffins that can be hard to spot.  We saw Arctic Terns that fly from one pole to the other.  The National Park Ranger who boarded our ship in Glacier Bay and stayed with us for two days said her favorite word was “magical.”  It was easy to see why.

Thinking back, after just a couple days back on the mainland, it did seem like a magical experience.  I’m still pinching myself.  “Did I really see glaciers and whales and wolves and grizzly bears and eat Alaskan King Crab and King Salmon and the best halibut I’ve ever tasted in the world?”  Yes.  And it was truly magical.

Alaskan Dream Cruises
1512 Sawmill Creek Road
Sitka, Alaska 99835
Toll free: (855) 747-8100
Local:  (907) 747-8100
Fax: (855) 747-8100
Email: info@alaskandreamcruises.com
Website: www.AlaskanDreamCruises.com

 

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