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Uncruising and Unwinding in Alaska

Article and photography by Jennifer Merrick

The stress of selling our home had taken its toll. Bags appeared on top of bags under our eyes from the preparation, staging, showings, open houses and uncertainty. Sleepless nights were the norm as we feverishly wished for somebody, anybody, to buy our home. But finally, it sold.

Three days after the successful sale, still shell-shocked, we flew to Juneau, Alaska, to embark on an UnCruise. This Seattle-based company differentiates itself from other cruise lines with its small ships (its biggest vessel has a maximum passenger capacity of 90), inclusive expedition-styled itineraries and its focus on nature, wildlife and culture.

Our ship, the aptly named Wilderness Explorer, sailed a section of Alaska’s Inside Passage, a route that weaved through countless islands along the Pacific coast. We boarded tense and tired, and disembarked, seven days later, relaxed and filled with awe by the expansiveness and staggering beauty of the Alaskan landscape.

Days of Adventure

We fell easily into the rhythm of the ship.

“Good morning, Wilderness Explorers,” the announcement would chime at the start of each day. “Breakfast is now being served in the dining room.”

After a delicious and hearty meal, we’d set out to do exactly what our ship’s name dictated and explore the wilderness. Unlike other cruises I’d been on, all of the UnCruise excursions were included in the price and designed to get you out in the wilds of Alaska at whatever intensity suited you best. Choices ranged from easy discovery walks and zodiac tours to paddleboarding, sea kayaking and bushwhacking. The latter was an UnCruise speciality, which could be described as hiking without a trail, and often involved slithering under fallen trees, clamouring up rocks and sliding down hills.

“We’re exploring, too!” our enthusiastic guides chirped as we dove into the lush vegetation of the temperate rainforest. Our lungs filled with air so rich with oxygen we could almost taste it, as we forged our way through bushes and trees. It was the complete opposite of the please-stay-on-the-marked-trail hiking I was used to!

Whatever adventure we decided on, whether leisurely or active, the wilderness never failed to astound and inspire us. Sheltered from the ocean and with an abundance of rain, vegetation flourished in the Inland Passage’s archipelago. Life clung to every branch and stone with moss and lichen of every shade of green. The calm, deep-blue water stretches out to mist-shrouded mountain peaks in the distance.

Hidden Falls and Secret Grottos

Because of the ship’s smaller size, we had access to special sites that ‘floating cities’ AKA larger cruise ships don’t. Places like Basket Bay, where we paddled into a divine grotto and listened to the sound of the ocean and forest while rays of sunlight filtered through the crevices of the limestone walls.

Hidden Falls, situated on the east side of Baranof Island, is another locale that’s available only to smaller vessels. It’s home to a fish hatchery that releases about 84 million chum fry each year. Some passengers elected to participate in an interpretive tour of the facility, whereas others, like myself, explored the site by kayak. We first paddled to the waterfalls, and wondered how it could have been named ‘hidden’, when it’s a breathtaking 128-feet high. And then we investigated around the hatchery, where we were amused by the fish that were continuingly jumping out of the water, sure that at one point one would flop itself into the boat. None did, though our guide said it had happened. We were also delighted by the seal, whose sweet face kept popping up, and the eagle perched on a ‘No Fishing’ sign.

Glacier Bay National Park

We spotted wildlife every day on our cruise, but our morning in Glacier Bay National Park was particularly memorable with sightings so incredible that even the park’s ranger was blown away.

“A truly remarkable day,” said Mark Ender, who was on board with us during our time at the 3.3- million-acre park that is famous for its glaciers, scenery and wildlife. “I only make journal entries when something is truly special, and today was definitely that.”

We were already feeling lucky, when we gathered around Ranger Matt on deck after breakfast, armed with binoculars. The sun was shining in this normally rainy climate, and the white-peaked mountains shimmered against the bluebird sky.

“Those are the Fairweathered Mountains,” Ranger Matt told us. “They got their name because they can only be seen on days like today.”

We felt even more fortunate when we started seeing the incredible wildlife at the park.

“The island we passed is a bachelor pad for sea lions,” the ranger remarked. “It smells like one, too, and is only inhabited by males too young or old to mate.”

On South Marble Island, there were puffins, the clown of the bird world, because of their brightly-colored beaks.

Next, the cutest otter floated by on his back.

But all of this was just the opening for the shows that were about to start.

“An orca!” someone called, and I turned just in time to see a tail fluke wave before it dove into the water. It surfaced again, this time closer to the boat along with another orca, and they both showed off their graceful moves and sleek black and white coloring. These creatures, also known as killer whales, are the largest member of the dolphin family, and it’s a rare sighting.

Brown bears are not so rare, but the territorial display we witnessed was. Watching through our binoculars, passengers collectively gasped, as both bears stood up on their hind legs vying for one particular spot on the beach. One retreated but then returned again for a second and third round before disappearing in the forest.

And then there was the swimming moose, who seemed completely oblivious to the clicking of cameras.

Just ‘wild’ in every sense of the word. The glaciers themselves almost seemed alive, when they rumbled and crackled, as they calved into the turquoise water. Feeling miniscule before the 350-feet ice sheet, our awe of the Alaskan landscape, replaced the tension we had accumulated in the past months of selling the house.

We remained blissed out until we returned home…to move.