Exploring Alaska's Inside Passage with the adventure, expense of a cruise

Photo by Bob Rottenberg UnCruise guest Sophie Rottenberg, 21, paddleboards in front of the Safari Endeavour in Gambier Bay on Day Three of a one-week adventure following John Muir's exploration in Alaska
Photo by Bob Rottenberg UnCruise guest Sophie Rottenberg, 21, paddleboards in front of the Safari Endeavour in Gambier Bay on Day Three of a one-week adventure following John Muir's exploration in Alaska
Published Dec. 6, 2017

JUNEAU, Alaska

Naturalist John Muir didn't have Patagonia waterproof Yulex gloves Amazon Primed to him. He did not have Gore-Tex or special wicking fabrics. His socks were probably wet the whole time.

These were my thoughts as I looked up from a cabin bunk on Day Three of a seven-night adventure cruise discovering the Alaska that inspired Muir to find "abounding beauty" in "all the cold darkness and glacial crushing." Above me dripped my rubber pants and jacket; a row of socks and gloves drooped forlornly from the shower rod, the commingling smells somewhere between wet dog and bog mud.

John Muir went to Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska in 1879 to prove his theory that Yosemite's mighty gorge had been created by the convergence of a similar system of glaciers. My reasons were more complex, half the Florida-summer fatigue and half because my in-laws are remarkably generous people.

There are many ways to explore Alaska — backpacking, a big cruise line — fewer ways to explore the Inside Passage and the 5,130 square miles of mostly wilderness that is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. UnCruise Adventures is not the cheapest way.

As I claimed my name tag and eyeballed our 79 fellow passengers in a windowless meeting room in Juneau before embarking, UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard rolled up the week's itinerary and heaved it across the room. Forget it, he said. Just a rough guideline. Our crew and guides would be freestyling.

And it was true. We did the trip loosely backward, snipping out bits here and adding destinations there, the crew following some mystical sense of where the animal sightings might be best and when our assigned Glacier Bay park visitation time was (only two big ships and three smaller ships allowed per day).

• • •

The mysticism part: On Day Three, after leaving Gambier Bay in the morning and seeing black bears loping in the distance (so far away my niece gave us credit only for gummy bears), we went up to the bridge. Capt. Shep Shepard and chief mate Paul St. Germain were playing Dark Side of the Moon, an album known to draw out humpback whales. It worked, and we watched them surface and dive, flukes thwapping, as the crew segued to Wish You Were Here. Whales aren't into the early stuff, evidently.

Day Three had followed Day Two, as is sometimes the case. That day had started with 6:45 a.m. yoga on the deck, a chilly affair that wellness officer Liz DaSilva whisked us through without an undue number of chaturangas.

This was serendipitous because our first activity postbreakfast was a long bushwhack (that's when you're hiking with no trail) across Ruth Island with lead expedition guide Mark Cassio, a level-headed guy with broad nature knowledge and the kind of thick Massachusetts accent that no amount of globetrotting can whittle. We saw bear scat, moose scat and maybe the ghost of Scatman Crothers, but few live animals. Popping wild blueberries in our mouths, it was more a morning of appreciating the spongy mosses, lichens and ferns of the temperate rainforest, Sitka spruce and western hemlock creating a dense canopy overhead.

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We skiffed back to the ship, grabbed a quick hot tub on deck and then it was time for lunch (Taco Tuesday, a tradition even on the Safari Endeavour). Marginal digestion occurred before it was time to re-don our rubber suits and Wellington-style boots, best at combatting sucking mud, and head back out to hike the Cascade Creek Trail in Tongass National Forest with expedition guide Tyler Stern. A charming San Diego native and semipro paintballer turned stockbroker turned nature guide, Stern seemed to find his bliss in Alaskan kayaking and hiking.

This was a hike not for the faint of heart, with engorged waterfalls and slick steps chiseled of granite in the steep sections, our group skirting bristles of devil's club and giant bouquets of skunk cabbage. (This is what bears use to jump-start their GIs posthibernation. Lots of fiber.)

Because of our hike, we missed warm cookies, served every day at 3 p.m., but had enough time to shower and change before happy hour.

Be still, my liver: British bartender Leigh Hogben was the kind of big-city mixologist who lures everyone out of their comfort zones with her shrubs and flips and elaborate concoctions with rhubarb bitters and garnishes like kooky kelp pickles. The blond equestrian spends part of her year working at a wine bar in Melbourne, Fla., but seemed right at home shaking martinis as the Endeavour rocked in the swells of Thomas Bay.

Chef James George had a treat for us that night, heaping piles of Alaskan Dungeness crab, cousins to the king crabs caught in Alaskan waters with trawls and traps made so famous on Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. Crack, butter dunk, chin wipe. Repeat. We noticed Capt. Shep absconding to the bridge the next afternoon with a big bowl of leftover crab and avocado wedges, so the crew eats none too shabbily, either.

• • •

You realize I'm still on Day Two, right? And I just gave Day Three a glancing blow? Every day aboard the Endeavour brought several options for excursions — some combination of meandering, skiff rides, bushwhacks and kayaking (the combo of the last two dubbed a whack 'n' yak) — each in a new location and often with a specific creature in mind. Maybe a skiff ride to see rafts of Steller's sea lions (that's what they're called, the way a group of hippos is a bloat), their big black eyes so intelligent you know they're checking you out and likely mocking your hat. Or just an hour on board with binoculars trained on the hillside to spy fluffy white mountain goats.

But there was plenty of downtime. Time to reclaim world dominance at Yahtzee and to get a massage. (Liz Galloway, your hands are magic.) And time to hang out over a glass of wine with fellow cruisers — folks like Australians Hena, Mary and Joseph Power, whose stories make Crocodile Dundee seem a little pusillanimous, or British vegan Charlie Smith, who has a special affinity for sharks and solo travel, or skiers Terry and Beachy Orr from Lake Tahoe, an orthopedist and anatomy professor, respectively. These were interesting people, unified by their aversion to more traditional cruises, their enthusiasm for nature and their willingness to get wet.

It rained. Every day. Because it's a mid-latitude rainforest, southeast Alaska doesn't get as cold and snowy as other parts, but there are about 250 wet days per year. April, May and June are usually the sunniest months, but most experts agree that peak season is June 15 to Aug. 15, striking the balance between best weather and prime wildlife viewing.

UnCruise suggests lots of layering, waterproof rain gear (they have loads onboard for borrowing) and rubber boots. Xtratuf boots are a wardrobe staple for crew, staff and pretty much every Alaska resident.

• • •

"Keep close to Nature's heart ... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean," Muir advised in Alaska Days With John Muir by Samuel Hall Young.

Fine, you're saying, I want my spirit clean but I can't climb a mountain and I'm sure as heck not sleeping on the ground for a week to do so. Not all of us are fit enough for roughing-it nature expeditions, which is why adventure outfits like UnCruise and competitors like Lindblad-National Geographic seem to be proliferating. Regardless of your position on global warming, the specter of species' extinctions, loss of sea ice and encroaching civilization lend some urgency to wanting to see remote parts of the world right now.

Small boat expeditions like UnCruise frequently allow guests access to places that can't be reached by land, and to do so in relative luxury. They do not have the hairy chest contests or Cha Cha Slide of traditional cruises, nor the fancy linens and foie gras amuse-bouches of Crystal or Viking cruises. "Formal night" means maybe you bust out your last pair of dry socks.

UnCruise currently has eight vessels and also offers trips to Baja's Sea of Cortés (lots of talk about swimming with 54-foot whale sharks), the Hawaiian Islands, coastal Washington, British Columbia and Columbia and Snake Rivers, the Galápagos Islands, Costa Rica and Panama. Berths are mostly two twins, bathrooms are utilitarian and entertainment is limited to things like taking the polar bear plunge or making an Alpine horn out of bull kelp. (Ours sounded more didgeridoo.)

Maybe the biggest difference between traditional cruises and an adventure cruise is the need to stay flexible. Yes, I was gunning to see a brown bear scooping up salmon while a bald eagle wheeled majestically overhead. Didn't happen. Instead, expedition guide and certified geology nut Stephanie Gallo made me appreciate the wonders of Dawes tidewater glacier tucked in a U-shaped valley at the head of Endicott Arm, its gorgeous blue color the result of compressed layers deforming due to the weight of overlying snow and ice, the short, blue light wavelengths transmitted and scattered.

With her, we watched Dawes calve, scooping a big chunk of brash (small glacier bits; bigger ones are called growlers and bigger still are bergy bits, the best vocab term of the trip) into the skiff. I licked it, visions of A Christmas Story in my head. Fresh water, with just an edge of salty tang from the sea water it bobbed in.

• • •

Glacier Bay National Park was entirely covered in ice as recently as 1795, Ranger Amber told us near the end of the week as we gathered in the forward lounge (called so mysteriously because the Endeavour didn't have an aft lounge).

We glided by the Margerie Glacier, the Lamplugh and the Reid before skirting Composite Island and viewing the deliciously named Gloomy Knob. White-winged guillemots and snaky-necked cormorants voguing on the shore, puffins skimming the water with their clown beaks — it was hard to imagine just a couple of centuries back all this biomass wasn't here.

Long before John Muir's visit, and even before Vitus Bering and his Russian expedition sighted the Alaskan mainland, it was walls of blue-white ice, glacial cirques and moraines, flowing and retreating unobserved near the top of the world.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.