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Cruising the Western Coves aboard Wilderness Discoverer

by R. Duchene, AdventureSmith Traveler

This Travel Journal submitted by AdventureSmith traveler R. Duchene details his Western Coves Adventure Cruise aboard the 76-guest Wilderness DiscovererSubmit your own AdventureSmith travel tales through our Travel Journal form -- through September 15, 2014, you could win a Galapagos cruise for doing so!

Day 1 - Ketchikan

My dear wife of 34 years Linda and I woke early in our lodging at the Cape Fox Lodge atop a hill overlooking the "Salmon Capital of the World", Ketchikan.  Waking up early in mid-June in Alaska is easy as the dawn light emerges by 3:30 a.m. and besides, today was a special day.  We would be meeting our small group of fellow travelers on the 'Wilderness Discoverer' later today. Some last minute shopping and sightseeing was topped off by a visit to the Ketchikan Farmer's Market, held under a tent on the wharf.  A good-natured group of shoppers crowded together to chat with the organic farmers, fishermen and food producers about their wares.  The afternoon drizzle dampened no one's spirits as one learns early that Alaska can be damp but a positive attitude with proper apparel will make each day a new adventure.

My wife had been wanting to do the "Inside Passage" for years but I had resisted her entreaties as I was sure I wanted no part of a multi-story 3000 passenger cruise ship.

A little background - my wife had been wanting to do the "Inside Passage" for years but I had resisted her entreaties as I was sure I wanted no part of a multi-story 3000 passenger cruise ship. As our anniversary approached, some research produced the "Un-Cruise" experience which promised proximity to natural areas and frequent forays into the wilderness. Back at the Cape Fox Lodge, we checked our bags and met with our group to hear Joe Williams, a Native Tlingit, who taught us that "ax xooni" was Tlingit for "my friend". He also discoursed on the matrilineal organization of his people. He is a charismatic and highly informative speaker. Transfer to the ship followed by some ice-breaking drinks, provided by the ever-cheerful bartender Chris.  The cabin is roomy enough and nicely appointed.  The dinner offered haddock and an opportunity to meet our fellow passengers. Certainly one of the joys of travel is meeting new people with interesting life stories.  The ship lifted anchor and we were off.

Day 2

Up at dawn and I made my way to the bow, where I marveled at how little of man's world was in evidence - no utility poles, no cottages, nothing but the occasional fishing marker.  Then I noticed the breath plume and the emergence of a humpback whale.  Also saw the first of many wee seabirds called Marbled Murrelets. We would see more marine life in our ride on the small skiffs that venture out from the mother ship.  In the skiff, we cautiously made our way up the coast and identified Harbor Seal, Common and Red-throated Loons and a cute little seabird with the imposing name of Rhinoceros Auklet.   In the afternoon, we set out in kayaks.  These kayaks were very different from the ones we had experience with as they were two-seaters and had pedals to guide the rudder.  Took some time but finally mastered the art of sea kayaking!

Day 3

Today we journeyed to Petersburg. a small town founded by a Norwegian (Peter!) and Petersburg has celebrated Norwegian holidays, cuisine and language ever since.  Guided by a long-time resident named Grant Trask, we learned about the fishing industry and life in Alaska. In the afternoon, we hiked through the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rain forest in North America.  Led by Alison, we made our way through muskeg, a kind of stunted forest that is home to a wide diversity of flora, including a carnivorous plant called a sundew. Even saw a Rufous Hummingbird.  Heard about a Rufous Hummingbird that had been banded in Florida and 10 months later was picked up in Alaska, a journey reckoned to be 4400 miles! It was a very good-natured group that added a lot to the day.

Day 4

Today we saw our first ice.  The ice, all different sizes, was sometimes stunning blue, sometimes glassy transparent.  We ventured out in skiffs on a body of water called Ideal Cove and just watched the show -  deep ocean, crystal clear ice, blue ice, blue sky.  Mixed in were Pigeon Guillemots.  Allison, group leader in the skiff, realized I love sea birds and went out of her way to get close to some Harlequin Ducks, one of the most dazzling ducks of all.  I hope the 8 other folks in the skiff appreciated the show but for Linda and me, it was a high point. A word about the food.  I've refrained from listing the dishes in each meal but it works out this way: Breakfast is cold breakfast (cereals, yogurt, etc.) served early and hot breakfast (eggs, oatmeal, etc.) a little later.  Lunch is done buffet style as was breakfast and the dinner is sit-down with three choices, one always being a local fish.  The food is tasty, imaginatively prepared and served in ample portions by a staff that is unfailingly gracious.  Haven't experienced a dud meal yet.



Day 5

Morning hike on the beach at Port Houghton - we had to stay together with an eye open for bears.  The wet kelp made the hike a bit challenging as your natural inclination was to look at the sea for sea lions or look at the forest for moose or bear but it's vital to watch your step. Rained for a short time but everyone just ignored it and before you knew it, it was gone.

The afternoon was unforgettable. The ship set off slowly and within an hour we were surrounded by Humpback whales.

The afternoon was unforgettable. The ship set off slowly and within an hour we were surrounded by Humpback whales.  First plumes in the distance, then surfacing near the ship and even breaching whales.  On the port side, on the starboard side.  Even the staff came out with cameras. The Humpbacks displayed bubble net fishing, an inventive technique in which the whales acting as a group confine and confuse prey fish but blowing walls of bubbles from underneath then suddenly swimming upwards with mouths agape, swallowing hundreds and even thousands of fish at a time.  The Humpbacks seemed to ignore our presence and the captain drew close for our benefit..  It was a natural phenomenon that almost defies description. Linda and I both felt most fortunate to have been witness to it. Late in the afternoon, an opportunity for artistic expression was made available.  An area was set aside in the lounge for drawing pictures of local wildlife in the Tlingit style.  Markers, paper and books with lots of illustrations of whales, orcas, seabirds, otters and others were provided as well as an instructor on hand to offer encouragement and advice if requested.  Linda did a wonderful rendering of a Common Loon.

Day 6

Today the sun shone all day.  We had arrived the previous night at Windham Bay. Early in the morning, I had spotted an ermine on the beach .  Later in the skiff, our group had the good fortune to witness a sea lion struggling with a salmon, a contest that lasted a surprisingly long time.  In the end, the sea lion prevailed but the salmon had acquitted itself with honor. The afternoon activity was a "beach party" which consisted of free-range exploring a beach with the usual condition that we stay in sight in case of bears.   It was fun to explore the rain forest with the guides and explore the beach solo. On returning to the ship, got word that the "Polar Plunge" was about to take place. Sorry that I had missed out on the snorkeling adventure, I decided I couldn't miss this. So, wearing trunks and beach shoes, I made my way to the second deck where a rope awaited me.  I was cautioned to give myself a good push off and make sure I remembered to let go. I soared out over the glacial water and free-fell into the salt water below. 

The icy water was a shock to the system but I surfaced and did my best freestyle to the back of the boat.

The icy water was a shock to the system but I surfaced and did my best freestyle to the back of the boat.  Once aboard, I was rinsed off with a hose that felt surprisingly tropical and within seconds, I was being welcomed into the elite circle of crazy Polar Plungers in the hot tub.  An exhilarating adventure, to be sure. Dinner that evening was especially pleasant as one of our fellow travelers had leaked the information to the dining staff that today was Linda and my 34th wedding anniversary. A round of "Happy Anniversary" was sung by our new friends and a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries was offered to enhance the evening.  Actually the evening was really completed by a wide-screen technicolor Alaskan sunset, complete with Humpback whales surfacing here and there.

Day 7

On waking, realized the ship was moving.  Went to the bow to experience the ship slipping through a narrow channel slowly to avoid the larger and larger ice chunks.  Slowly the source of the ice came into view - the Dawes Glacier.  The ship stopped short to allow us to board skiffs and approach the glacier as close as was prudent. Awesome is an often-overused word but it is the right word to describe the immensity and the raw power of a glacier.  We paused a short distance from the glacier, listening to the gunshot-like reports of cracking ice and watching hunks of ice come crashing to the sea.  Arctic Terns streaked through the air as we marveled at the vibrant blue of the ancient ice. After lunch, word came of a trio of mountain goats on the cliff abutting the glacial bay.

"There's a wolf on the beach!"

We were watching through binoculars or snapping photos when someone exclaimed, "There's a wolf on the beach!"  Silently we watched the wolf catch sight of the mountain goats and with amazing speed, make his way up the mountainside in pursuit.  Within a few minutes, we passengers were witness to a nature drama as the wolf cornered an adult goat, who defended itself with its horns.  The wolf left the lone goat on a precipice and pursued another adult and a juvenile.  The climax of the drama was hidden from our view but the end result was two adults and no juvenile in sight.  One has to conclude that the wolf ate well that afternoon. Meanwhile the audience of nature travelers got a piece of stagecraft that Mother Nature had been producing for millennia.  Another unforgettable afternoon. A remarkable day followed by a splendid dinner as a kind of farewell.  The dinner was followed by a slide show featuring some high points of the week's exploits, accompanied by a soundtrack of appropriate tunes.  The evening ended with the Captain making a rather gracious show of gratitude for the staff for all they do.

Day 8

The last day of sailing saw us steaming into Juneau.  Luggage arrangements were done during that last breakfast while we bid our travel buddies farewell and gave thanks to the ever-cordial staff for an experience not soon forgotten.  I was personally happy that I had not ruled out all cruises forever!


Comments

Natalie

I really enjoyed this journal- very informative and exciting to read! The pictures were wonderful. Makes me want to go on an Alaskan cruise!

AdventureSmith Explorations

Hi Natalie. Thanks for your comment. We agree, this is a very well written travel journal that really captures the small ship experience in Alaska. We especially like the big ship vs small ship picture. It makes us want to go too!

Dennis

The discription and pictures of this adventure really brought it to life. I didn't know this method of traversing Alaska exsisted. I would certainly consider this, if I were to travel to this magnificent part of the world.

AdventureSmith Explorations

Thank you for your comment, Dennis. Small ship cruises truly are an amazing way to experience Alaska. Please let us know if you would like an Adventure Specialist to contact you with details.

Pam

What a wonderful article. This trip sounds magnificent. The pictures were amazing.

AdventureSmith Explorations

Hi, Pam. We think this a great travel journal too! Thanks for reading!

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