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Expert Review: True Alaska with True Alaskans – An Inside Passage Sojourn

by Todd Smith

A slight drizzle is falling through the forest canopy as our guide stops us and points out the first massive totem peaking through the trees. I’m in Kasaan, Alaska, a remote Haida village of about 60 people. Our guide, Fred Olson, is the Cultural Resources Coordinator for the village and has made this trip possible for guests of Alaskan Dream Cruises. Our small group crosses a moss-covered bridge spanning a bubbling creek that appears to be straight out of “The Lord of the Rings.” We pass a number of towering totems as our guide explains the various types including story poles, memorial poles, debt poles, etc. The group enters the huge Haida clan house and a hush comes over us; we have entered a sacred place. This is authentic Alaska.

Kasaan Totem

It’s only day 2 of my cruise, and in addition to Fred I’ve already met Joe Wilson, the former mayor of Saxman; Ryan, a former commercial fisherman and son of a cannery worker; a carver named Stormy who gave my kids an adze and let them whack away at his cedar canoe; and a grandmother named Phyllis who is the last native Haida speaker in her village. When most travelers ponder a small ship cruise in Alaska’s Inside Passage they imagine breaching whales, calving glaciers, roaming bears, and soaring eagles. With their shallow draft and flexible itineraries, small ships are designed to explore nature and wildlife up close. For Alaskan Dream Cruises, this region’s incredible wildlife and scenery is only the beginning. This cruise explores Alaska through the lens of authentic Alaskans. By meeting and spending time with real Alaskans, where they work and where they play, I have experienced Alaska in a whole new way. It is through the beauty of her people that Alaska reveals her true magic. Alaska’s culture is alive and well aboard the Alaskan Dream.

Tlingit Welcome

Alaska’s Inside Passage Sojourn

My wife and I, along with our two young sons embarked on the 8-day Inside Passage Sojourn cruise in Ketchikan and ended in Sitka (although the itinerary can also operate in reverse from Sitka to Ketchikan). Most of our fellow travelers arrived in Ketchikan one day early (which is recommended), but our two-hour flight from Seattle arrived bright and early at 8:00am (Alaska is one hour behind Pacific Time) on the day of embarkation. Upon arrival we were greeted by Joanna who guided us to the first of 7 small boats we would use to explore Alaska. This small ferry (Boat 1) shuttles travelers from the Ketchikan Airport on Gravina Island to town and is where the original “bridge to nowhere” would have been built. A quick narrated transfer introduces us to the charms of Ketchikan. We arrive at Salmon Landing and are guided to an airy reception lounge overlooking the Alaskan Dream where our luggage will be securely kept before being transferred to our cabin on the ship.

Towering over our small ship is the 2,100-passenger Carnival Spirit with a huge line of hundreds of people waiting to board providing a stark contrast of the journey we are about to embark upon. Joanna points us to the attractions in town, all within easy walking distance, and offers to book a lumberjack show for us. We were not so sure about the show so we head out on our own toward the historic Creek Street.

Ketchikan & Lumberjacks

Ketchikan is the perfect town to introduce travelers to Alaskan culture. Like most towns in Southeast Alaska, Ketchikan is located on an island and is only accessibly by boat or plane. This town of 14,000 is also known as Alaska’s First City, the Salmon Capitol of Alaska, and Alaska’s Rain City. It’s home to the vibrant Tlingit village of Saxman, and its diverse economy is supported by fishing, logging, maritime services, and tourism. Creek Street is a historic remake of the town’s original red light district, “where the fish and fishermen went upstream to spawn.” Creek Street is now home to a number of gift shops, bright candy stores, and terrific views of spawning salmon. The Tongass Welcome Center has a large museum with a terrific 30-minute movie that is a great introduction to Southeast Alaska. If time allows visit Totem Bight Historical Park or take a tour of Saxman Village, both of which are outside the downtown area and require a taxi or tour. Joanna can help. In fact after taking Joanna’s suggestion we finally ended up at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. It was clearly geared for the large cruise ship audience, but it was fun, entertaining, and provided a good way to stay dry prior to embarking our small ship journey.

Transfer, Cannery & Embark at Sea

Arriving back at Salmon Landing we gather with all other cruise passengers and are greeted by Joe Wilson. Joe is the former mayor of Saxman, and a Tlingit elder. Joe welcomes us to his Alaskan home and launches into weaving personal stories and anthropology for an entertaining and educational introduction to his Tlingit culture, past and present. After Joe’s introduction Joanna leads our group downstairs and to the dock. We walk right past our ship, the Alaskan Dream, and aboard the 150-guest day tour catamaran St John (Boat 2). Joanna explains that we will board the St John to visit a historic cannery, watch for wildlife, and then rendezvous with the Alaskan Dream later this afternoon, at sea. Underway, we are served lunch and soon we are watching for whales while eagles soar the grey skies above us.

An entertaining visit to the George Inlet historic cannery is highlighted by our guide Ryan, whose enthusiasm and personal anecdotes bring the history of this place to life. After the tour they serve snacks; the smoked salmon is superb. Back on board the St John we cruise toward Misty Fjords National Monument spotting seals, porpoise, and a bald eagle nest with eagles inside. Soon the St John is approached by the Alaskan Dream (Boat 3) and we embark our cruise already surrounded by Alaskan wilderness.

Kasaan, Thorne Bay, Wrangell & Petersburg

The next three days we are exploring small, authentic Alaskan villages and towns that are so far off the radar most travelers have never heard of them. The night before each port of call, our on-board Expedition Leaders (Emily-Scientific EL and Larisa-Cultural EL) help us better understand the people and places we are exploring. Presentations on Tlingit and Haida art prepared us to walk among totems and talk to carvers. A history of the Tongass National Forest provided the background to experience Thorne Bay and Wrangell. In addition to the on board EL’s, we had locals who would come on board for an introduction, then take us on an informal guided walk through their town. The local guides would frequently be in the middle of their tour when they inevitably ran into friends and acquaintances that provided insights unavailable on conventional tours. The Alaskan Dream is the first cruise ship to visit many of these towns, and people genuinely waved, stopped to say hi, and welcomed us into their small communities.

We visit the whale house in Kasaan and learn of Fred’s efforts to finance a restoration. We meet a woman who lives on a houseboat that she and her husband have converted into a “Floatel.” A local carver quickly converts a hunk of spruce into a cute bear in Thorne Bay, the former logging camp turned town. A father-son jet boat (Boat 4) crew leads our group up the Stikine River all the way to the Canadian Border past deserted dairy farms, defunct mining claims, and floating backcountry huts. In Petersburg we mingle among fishermen and Norwegian dancers. In between each port we cruise through spectacular wilderness areas including Misty Fjords National Monument, Wrangell Narrows, and Frederick Sound. Along the way we view deer, bears, moose, humpback whales, dall porpoise, and more bald eagles than we can count. We feel like we are experiencing Alaska with a long-lost relative who is introducing us to her friends and family and home.

The Alaskan Dream

The Alaskan Dream is a 42-guest catamaran acquired by Allen Marine Cruises in 2010. Read a full review and ship description of the Alaskan Dream here. Allen Marine, the parent company of Alaskan Dream Cruises, pioneered aluminum high-speed passenger vessels with water jet propulsion systems. The company was started 1967 by Bob and Betty Allen with deep Alaskan roots running through exploration, industry, and the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan. The company’s operation of 27 day boats also provides an important infrastructure for the success of Alaskan Dream Cruises.

I had cruised aboard this small ship many years before when she was named the Executive Explorer and operated by Glacier Bay Tours & Cruises. Now the Alaskan Dream is a completely new ship with refurbished interior, new engines and generators, and an updated galley. The new bright finishes complement her dark wood and make the most of her spectacular view windows. One of my favorite aspects of the cruise was waking up each morning and lying in bed, enjoying the soft linens, watching spectacular Alaskan scenery pass by my cabin.

With a maximum capacity of 42 and a crew of 19 the Alaskan has a very good crew-to-guest ratio. Led by Captain Eric Morrow, the crew is a fun mix of small ship cruise veterans and enthusiastic new recruits. Most have extensive experience in Alaska, and hearing their personal stories of home enhances our feeling that we are experiencing Alaska through its people. The service aboard Alaskan Dream was excellent with every crew member greeting every guest with a smile and a “how can I help you” attitude. A couple of nights they set up a “movie and dinner” for our kids in the lounge, allowing us to have an adult dinner. At Hobart Bay they put chairs and tables on deck so we could have an outdoor picnic in the sunshine.

The food aboard the Alaskan Dream is delicious. Chef Briana has arranged a menu highlighting local seafood including salmon, halibut and crab. My favorite dinners included Southeastern Alaskan Dungeness Crab, Blackened Halibut and the Shrimp and Grits. I also enjoyed seafood on most lunches including an Alaskan Crab BLT, Halibut Tacos and a Northwest Seafood pot pie. Breakfasts were hearty or healthy depending on your tastes. All meals are cooked to order with a selection of 3 nightly specials or a standard menu that includes beef, chicken and vegetarian options. Kids portions or special kids meals are no problem. I must also mention the full time pastry chef who provided a constant stream of fresh baked breads, deserts and afternoon cookies.
Alaskan Dream

Hobart Bay, Endicott Arm & Orca Point

If the first half of our small ship cruise focused on Alaska and its people, the second half satisfied our desire for wilderness and adventure. As we cruised north we began to see humpback whales and porpoise. Sea lions, seals, and otters began to appear. Resident birds such as marbled murrelets, pigeon guillemots, and tufted puffins were joined by numerous migratory birds that pass through Southeast Alaska every spring and fall on their way to and from the Arctic.

As our captain maneuvered the ship into the mouth of Hobart Bay the trees on either side seemed so close I could touch them. We moored at the dock of a former logging camp and began a full day of activity in Alaskan Dream’s private adventure base in scenic Hobart Bay. For those who wanted extra activity the ELs offered a sunrise paddle before breakfast. The sun actually rises at 3:00am this time of year so the 6:00am paddle seemed like midday with calm water and Alaskan solitude. Our group quietly paddled along a rugged shore with towering snow-covered peaks penetrating a clear blue sky. The guides stayed quiet allowing us to hear and enjoy the true Alaskan solitude that was only penetrated by the occasional screech of a bald eagle. As my son and I paddled back to the ship, hungry and happy, we could smell the bacon frying.


Kayaking


For this activity day, meals were served buffet style to allow for the flexible schedule of activity groups coming and going. Prior to our arrival the ELs had assigned each guest to a color-coded group. The groups would determine the day’s order of activities, which included opportunities to kayak (Boat 5) or explore by ATV or Zego watercraft (Boat 6). Each guest has at least one opportunity to try each activity, and if time allows they can try one activity twice.

At first I was skeptical that ATVs and Zegos could provide an authentic Alaskan experience. However through the course of the trip I had learned that this is how locals navigate the varied, islanded terrain of Southeast Alaska. Nearly every family has a boat and a backcountry vehicle of some sort. In fact we had met many people who could only access their home or village by boat. A Zego is a small, stable catamaran/jet ski type craft with a 10-horsepower outboard engine. Each Zego can carry up to two adults, and they are fast enough to be fun but not so fast to be dangerous. These were my kids’ favorites, and the guided Zego excursions allowed us to journey farther afield than the kayaks. Soon my whole family was chanting “I go, you go, we go, ZEGO!” The ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) similarly carry two people, are easy to drive, and provide excitement while the guides in front and back keep the pace and keep us safe. Utilizing a network of narrow logging paths we ride high above Hobart Bay offering views across the Inside Passage. At a scenic overlook near a river we spot a bear looking for the salmon that will appear later in the summer. Our guides use the regrown forest around us as a background to expand upon our knowledge of logging operations and history in this part of Alaska. At the end of the day, as we enjoyed a spectacular sunset, we felt like we had again experienced Alaska as an Alaskan.
Zegos

Tracy & Endicott Fjords

Endicott Arm is a 25-mile-long fjord with spectacular 3,000-foot granite walls and cascading waterfalls culminating in the dramatic, blue Dawes Glacier. Our itinerary called for Tracy Arm this day; however, reports from day cruises operated by Allen Marine indicated that ice conditions would not allow us to view the glaciers in Tracy Arm. Again, Alaskan Dream’s local connections and family presence helped improve our journey. We awoke to icebergs passing our windows. Breakfast was interrupted by a couple of huge blue bergs that had guests running for their cameras. After breakfast the ship slowly weaved among the bergs, some with harbor seals and newborn pups on them. As we rounded the last bend the immense Dawes Glacier, at nearly 300 feet high and a half mile wide, came into view. We are told this glacier’s characteristic blue ice is a result of dense conditions high in the icefield where this glacier was born. Captain Eric positions the ship about a quarter mile off the face of the glacier, and we enjoy the icy wildness for an hour or more. The crew brings a small iceberg on board, and just as we are about to depart a huge chunk falls off the face and comes splashing into the water. A proper goodbye the captain announces. We resume our Alaskan journey.
Dawes Glacier
Another afternoon of whale watching and cruising culminates with an after-dinner stop at the Orca Point Lodge in Stephens Passage adjacent to Admiralty Island. This day lodge is a popular lunch stop for whale-watching cruises out of Juneau, but tonight we have the place to ourselves. After a full day of cruising we appreciate the chance to stretch our legs on a beach walk. My kids enthusiastically enjoy the intertidal touch pool filled with huge sea anemones, urchins, kelp, crabs, shrimp, barnacles, and more. A gift shop offers a unique selection of Made in Alaska items that was a refreshing alternative to the cruise shops we encountered in Ketchikan. The evening culminated roasting s’mores and drinking wine around a campfire while a crew member read aloud from the “The Best of Robert Service.” Another perfect Alaskan experience. The Alaskan Dream has departed for Juneau to take on fuel and water so we are transferred from Orca Point by another day tour boat (Boat 7).

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is known to many as the crown jewel of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Originally this was not part of the Alaskan Dream itinerary, but when park permits presented themselves the company was able to obtain them and add Glacier Bay to most summer 2012 Inside Passage Sojourn Cruises. Minute-by-minute, a day in Glacier Bay is as exciting as nearly any wildlife safari on the planet. Whales appear before breakfast. After breakfast we are rushed on deck to experience South Marble Island and a cacophony of Stellar sea lions, nesting birds including gulls, cormorants, murres, and puffins being harassed by bald eagles in search of eggs. We take shelter from the rain in the view lounge but are soon called back up on deck to view two bears that are so close you can hear them scratching barnacles and mussels on shore. Next are mountain goats, some showing new kids how to navigate the steep granite cliffs of Gloomy Knob. Soon we arrive at the spectacular Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. Together they form a 3-mile wall of ice constantly calving bergy bits into the waters below. On the return trip down bay we learn that this area was covered in glaciers only 200 years ago. The glaciers have since retreated 65 miles, and we can see the succession of life that has moved in to Glacier Bay in their path. On board to help us better understand this landscape is Ranger Rick from the National Park Service and Faith Grant a Cultural Heritage Guide. Faith is a Huna Tlingit, whose ancestors occupied Glacier Bay for millennia and whose oral history of the glaciers is now verified by park scientists. Again we are reminded that the story of Alaska’s nature and wildlife and even national parks are interwoven with its people. A quick stop at Bartlett Cove, home of Glacier Bay Lodge, gives passengers a chance to stretch their legs on a nature trail, visit the Park Service interpretive center, and enjoy the scenic deck or a warm fire.
Glacier Bay Family

Farewell Alaska

The next day, we awake with trees again startlingly close to our cabin window. We’re passing through Sergius Narrows on our way to disembark in Sitka. Large cruise ships cannot make it through this channel and must subject their guests to the rough seas of the outer coast. After breakfast we bid a teary farewell to our crew and fellow passengers. A historic trolley whisks our group through town on an abbreviated tour. Sitka was once known as the Paris of the Pacific with a rich and sometimes violent Tlingit, Russian, and American History. It was here where Russia formally transferred ownership of Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000 on October 18, 1867. The tour concludes with a transfer to the airport. Others will spend the day in Sitka enjoying visits to the raptor rehabilitation center, the Russian Bishops House, Totem Park, or the Russian Orthodox Church while still others will enjoy the sights, stay overnight, and then depart tomorrow. We arrive at the airport feeling not like Alaskan travelers but as locals who spent the past week visiting among family and friends in our long lost home… Alaska.

A Note About Small Ship Cruising With Kids

We brought our young kids age 6 and 8 on this cruise and they had a wonderful time. Small ship cruises in Alaska are generally suitable for families with kids 6 years and over. While some cruise lines will allow kids younger than this, I don’t recommend it. These ships have no day care on board, there are few places to run around, and days can involve long stretches on board while underway.
Black Bear

Trip Notes & Booking Details

The 8 day/7 night Inside Passage Sojourn operates every Sunday from mid May through late August. Three cabin categories are available starting at $3229 per person and going up to $7699 per person. Book any remaining 2012 cruise and save 35%. The Alaskan Dream also operates an 11 day/10 night Southeast Alaskan Explorer cruise. Alaskan Dream Cruises also operates 66 Guest Admiralty Dream on an 8 day/7 night Glacier Bay and Island Adventure starting at only $1895 per person and a 3 day/2 night Glacier Bay Quest cruise from $899 per person. Call the award winning small ship cruise experts at AdventureSmith Explorations or 1-800-728-2875 to book your Alaskan Dream Cruise.


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