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Un-Cruising Alaska from Ketchikan to Juneau

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Written by Valerie Tkaczyk.

“Once you step on board, you’ll understand immediately. It’s the casual nature. It’s nature itself. It’s the rare encounter. It’s the attentive service, the fellowship, the extraordinary sense of place. It’s all these things and so much more.”

The short snippet above was taken from Un-Cruise Adventures’ website and I cannot think of a better way to describe our experience sailing with them a few weeks ago. Currently, Un-Cruise offers sailings in Alaska, Columbia and Snake Rivers, the Hawaiian Islands, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, and Washington & British Columbia.

We sailed the Inner Reaches and Western Coves of Alaska aboard the Wilderness Explorer from Ketchikan to Juneau.

DAY 1 – KETCHIKAN

We stayed in Seattle the night before embarkation in order to catch the first Alaska Airlines flight to Ketchikan the next morning. The Ketchikan airport is very small and the flight attendant joked by saying “If you’re making a connection… Well, you probably aren’t.” The airport is not connected to the rest of the city, so you have to take a ferry to leave the airport. Un-Cruise had a transfer shuttle waiting for us right outside the airport that took us directly to the hospitality area at the Cape Fox Lodge.

The hospitality area was nice because we were able to leave our bags there all day while we explored Ketchikan. It was a beautiful day, but everyone kept reminding us that it is usually raining and that we were lucky. We walked around and browsed shops, saw some totem poles, and just enjoyed the nice day before meeting back at the hospitality area for a culture presentation from a Tlingit elder. The presentation was an educational start to a great week.

We were soon transferred to the pier to board the Wilderness Explorer and were welcomed by captain and crew. Our bags were waiting for us in our cabin along with two reusable water bottles and a pair of binoculars to use during the week. The cabin also had a TV with five channels: two playing Alaska documentaries, one showing the view from the bow cam (great for seeing Dall’s Porpoises), one showing a live map, and one with a slideshow of information including activity options, menus, random tidbits of information, etc. Once everyone boarded, we met in the lounge with our PFDs for a safety orientation and introductions.

It was time for dinner as we sailed away from Ketchikan. This sailing was considered an “Active” adventure, so dinner is plated and breakfast and lunch are buffet-style. Dinner always had fresh-baked bread, an appetizer of soup or salad, a choice of meat, seafood, or vegetarian, and dessert. The food was excellent! Each morning, the dinner menu and a signup sheet were posted at the entrance to the dining room to let the chef know about how many of each choice to prepare for.

DAY 2 – EL CAPITAN CAVE

A little while before breakfast the first morning, one of the crew members announced over the intercom that there was a pod of orcas on the port side, which happened to be right outside our door. On the way back to our cabin after breakfast, we spotted a humpback in the same area. I was not expecting to see whales so soon!

That afternoon, we had a choice of activities while we were anchored near El Capitan Cave. We chose to take a skiff to a small dock and do the hike up to the cave, which is the largest mapped cave in North America. The 360-ish steps up to the cave were worth it. The best part was when we turned our headlamps off and stood in complete darkness listening to the sounds of the cave.

That night, one of the guides gave a presentation in the lounge about intertidal life. Much of what we learned came in handy while identifying creatures later in the week during a shore walk while the tide was out.

DAY 3 – KLAWOCK

The next day was really the only time we stopped at a port the whole week. Klawock is a small town on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island. Klawock’s Totem Park, with 21 totem poles, has the largest collection of authentic totem poles in all of Alaska. We spent some time in the park with one of the residents (I think he was actually the city manager). It was kind of surreal listening to him talk about how they are either eagles or ravens in Tlingit culture while eagles and ravens were flying and swooping all around us. We then went to the carving shed and listened to an apprentice carver’s young perspective.

All the Tlingit people we encountered mentioned how happy they were with their relationship with Un-Cruise. One of them said that Un-Cruise came to them looking for authentic Native Alaskan community to share their culture and history, the community showed Un-Cruise what they were all about, and Un-Cruise loved it. Un-Cruise is the only cruise line that visits Klawock.

That evening, there was another presentation in the lounge given by another guide about the discovery of Alaska. We didn’t feel like going to the lounge that night, so we were able to listen in on the intercom. Each room had a volume control dial that can be turned to the desired volume or off completely. We left ours on the whole week because we didn’t want to miss any wildlife sightings.

DAY 4 – BAY OF PILLARS

Aside from the first evening, every evening during cocktail hour in the lounge, the guides would tell everyone their activity options for the following day and take signups. We signed up for a 4-5 mile hike with a sack lunch. When Un-Cruise says that there are wet landings, they are not exaggerating. Rubber boots are a must! There were docks to El Capitan Cave and in Klawock, but today our skiff just explored a general area searching for a good spot to drop us off.

We were the first Un-Cruise group of the season, so we started out with a bit of a bushwhack searching for the trail. Eventually we found the ATV trail and followed that. We saw some interesting things including a bear cub skeleton. It was also pouring rain the whole day, so not only were rubber boots helpful, I highly recommend a rain jacket and rain pants. The Tongass National Forest is a temperate rainforest, after all. We were all happy to find hot cocoa and hot tea in the skiff to enjoy on the ride back to the ship.

That evening’s presentation in the lounge was about wilderness and how this year (2014) is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

DAY 5 – CRUISING SOUTH BARANOF ISLAND

We spent the day cruising along the shore of south Baranof Island. First we anchored in Gut Bay and had the opportunity to kayak or go on a skiff tour. Although it was rainy and a little chilly, it was beautiful. Being so early in the season, the waterfalls were gushing from the snow melt and rain. We saw what was left of an old cannery, one of many we saw during the week.

Next we cruised through Red Bluff Bay, which was also very beautiful. After we exited the bay, we did some searching for whales and were happy to see multiple humpbacks.

Another optional activity during the day was that guests were given the opportunity to tour the engine room and galley. That evening, the presentation was about native Alaskan birds.

DAY 6 – ROBERT AND CROW ISLANDS

Although there was an option to go snorkeling for an extra $35 per person, we chose the shore walk and were pleasantly surprised. We saw so many little creatures including sunflower sea stars, sea urchins, baby salmon (I am not sure which stage they were in), anemone, dungeness crab, and more.

That evening was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. We sailed over to the Brothers Islands to see a Stellar sea lion haulout. They covered a tiny area of land and one of the guides said that they stay there for months without eating.

Next, the captain decided to search for whales and we certainly found them. It started when they announced a pod of orcas and everyone hurried to the bow. The caption stopped the engine so that we could drift with them and pods surrounded us on all sides. We must have spotted at least 7 pods with 6-15 orcas in each pod. It was amazing! They were close, they were far, they were out in front, and on each side. They were everywhere.

DAY 7 – ENDICOTT ARM FJORD AND DAWES GLACIER

This was everyone’s most anticipated day of the cruise. We woke up with mountains towering around us and “bergy bits” floating by, some with harbor seals in tow. The guides rightly assumed that everyone would want to go on a skiff tour. Everyone hung out on the bow all day taking in the scenery that surrounded us. I didn’t realize before that even when the glacier isn’t calving, it still periodically shifts with a crackling sound that echoes through the fjord.

It was time for our skiff tour and we were lucky to be in the only group that was able to experience glacier calving while on the skiff. Native Alaskans call it White Thunder when the glacier calves. There is no better way to describe it, but no description or even video can do it justice. You really have to experience it to believe it. I am sure it was amazing from the bow of the Wilderness Explorer, but it was out of this world to feel our skiff bob up and down from the wave of a massive chunk of ice that crashed into the sea.

That afternoon, we headed to an inlet within Endicott Arm for some kayaking and later a polar plunge. At one point while kayaking, another passenger who was paddleboarding yelled to us that a harbor seal was following us. They were adorable. Later, everyone gathered at the stern of the ship to jump into the icy waters (or to witness the brave souls that wanted to do so).

Later that evening was the Captain’s Dinner. After dinner, everyone gathered in the lounge for a slideshow of photos that were taken throughout the week. Good times!

DAY 8 – JUNEAU

It was time to disembark on Day 8 in Juneau. Although sad to say goodbye to the people we met and the Wilderness Explorer, we were looking forward to exploring Juneau. We booked the last flight out of Juneau so that we would have the whole day to enjoy the city.

First, we went up the Mount Roberts Tramway. It was $32 per person and that was good for as many times as we wanted to go up and down the mountain all day. I was disappointed to have not seen bears the whole week, but the first time we went up the tram, we saw bear cubs wrestling below. With that, my Southeast Alaska bucket list was complete.

For lunch, we ate at the popular Tracy’s King Crab Shack. The food, location, and atmosphere were everything I would want from an Alaskan crab shack. I highly recommend it!

The last thing we decided to do before our Un-Cruise transfer (which turned out to be a limo) to the airport was to visit Mendenhall Glacier. We took the Glacier Express (blue bus) for $20 per person round-trip from the downtown area to the entrance of the Mendenhall Glacier area. The trails and area surrounding the glacier area are free, but it costs $3 per person to go inside the Visitor’s Center.

We took the less than a mile trail to Nugget Falls and a better view of the glacier. On the way, we saw a plaque dedicated to the beloved Romeo, a lone black wolf that one of the guides told us about earlier in the week. Romeo has an interesting story that you can read about in Romeo: The Story of an Alaskan Wolf.

Alaska is one of the most repeated destinations in the world and now I know why. I couldn’t imagine exploring Southeast Alaska in any other way than by sea with Un-Cruise! Call Classic Travel at 517-349-6200 for assistance with planning your perfect trip to Alaska.

Valerie Tkaczyk About the Author: Valerie is a graduate of Michigan State University and has been with Classic Travel for three years. First an intern, Valerie is now the director of marketing, web, IT, and the internship program. Email Valerie: valerie@classictravelusa.com