Beyond Words- A Journey Through the Inside Passage
by David Selcon on Aug 27, 2008
“Seal does not taste like chicken folks, seal tastes like seal,” our Cultural Interpreter and Tlingit tribe member, Kevin, says with a smile during his narrative on our way into Glacier Bay National Park. “It’s like trying to describe Asparagus,” he continues speaking in terms that we can understand. “And what does Asparagus taste like?” he asks the crowd of attentive listeners. “Well…., it tastes like Asparagus, doesn’t it? And nothing else can come close to describing it.”
I looked around the Spirit of Yorktown lounge at all the other guests and observed their reactions to Kevin’s clever explanation. Subtle smiles were visible on their faces, as they all nodded their heads in manner that indicated acceptance, approval, and appreciation of his apt description.
The implication of this statement, as I understand it, is that often times mere words cannot adequately describe an object in question - in this case seal meat (or Asparagus)- and that in order to fully understand and appreciate it, one must experience it first hand.
Following a recent AdventureSmith Explorations small ship cruise in Alaska’s Inside Passage, I feel I understand Kevin’s point perfectly. Some things just have to be experienced to be understood.
Prior to working with AdventureSmith Explorations, I worked as a wilderness guide in Alaska for nearly 6 summer seasons. As you might imagine, I was really excited for the opportunity to return to the Great North – the land of the midnight sun, massive snowcapped mountains, glaciers, fjords, bears, moose, and all other things that have come to define the Alaskan experience. Ask anybody who as ever traveled to Alaska and they will agree that this amazing place is captivating and has a magnetism about it that keeps drawing travelers back for another visit.
I realized that I was once again under Alaska’s enchanting spell as soon as our plane had landed in Juneau. As I walked out of the airport I paused for a moment and stared in awe at my surroundings: lush, verdant trees of the Tongass National forest, towering 4,000-ft peaks jutting straight up from the sea, and the massive Juneau Icefield spanning 1,800 square miles located just over the ridge. Simply amazing! I was happy to be back in Alaska and knew that I would surely enjoy my small ship cruise aboard the Spirit of Yorktown, my floating home for the next several days.
As expected, the entire cruise throughout the Inside Passage aboard the Spirit of Yorktown was a great experience; in fact, it easily surpassed my expectations. Each area we travelled through introduced us to rarely seen natural treasures and provided us with more insight to the geography, history, wildlife, geology and cultures found in this isolated region of the world.
We visited a few interesting ports during this trip including: Skagway, home of the White Pass Railroad and gateway to the Chilkoot trail; the colorful artistic community of Haines and the nearby Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve; and historic Sitka, the oldest non native settlement in South East Alaska. Guests could choose to explore these areas on an included tour, an optional special interest tour (photography tour, river rafting, hiking), or by independently exploring on their own.
The stops at the ports were very pleasant. The variety of activities offered ensured that there was something for everyone. I also enjoyed the opportunity to get off the ship, stretch my legs a bit, and explore some of the locations on my own.
In addition to our visits to different interesting settlements and villages along the way, our itinerary also included a full day at sea devoted to exploring Glacier Bay National Park. This was, without a doubt, my favorite day of the cruise and the highlight of my visit to Alaska! From beginning to end, this day can best be described as a gradual crescendo of excitement.
I awoke that misty morning to learn that we had picked up a National Park Ranger and a Tlingit Native Alaskan Cultural Interpreter at Bartlett Cove, a small community located near the entrance of Glacier Bay National Park. The value of their presence was immediately apparent. Their presentations and discussions were extremely informative, provocative and served to provide visitors with a greater understanding of the history, geology, and wildlife found in Glacier Bay. The more I listened to these experts, the more I appreciated Glacier Bay.
We soon cruised by Marble islands and were treated to our first glimpse of wildlife. The island was teaming with seabirds including black-legged kittiwakes, murrelets and puffins and the ever so popular Steller Sea Lions barking wildly at each other. I was impressed as the captain skillfully maneuvered our small ship within a short distance of these wild animals; close enough so we could observe and photograph them, but far enough away so we did not disturb them.
Cruising further into the park, our naturalist guide pointed out several mountain goats that were resting precariously on the faces of cliffs high above the water. The goats sat quietly, watching us carefully as we cruised on by. It was at the base of these cliffs that somebody had spotted a Black Wolf walking alone along the beach. The captain was notified immediately, and he again skillfully maneuvered our small ship in a way that would provide us with a better view of this wild and mysterious creature. Using the binoculars provided on board, I sat fixated upon this creature for quite some time. Eventually the Black Wolf retreated behind some willows and disappeared from our view. The captain then turned the vessel and pointed us in the direction of Tarr Inlet, home of Margerie and Grand Pacific Glacier.
It was right around this time I noticed that the clouds were beginning to lift; patches of blue were becoming visible in the cloudy skies above, and it was beginning to warm up noticeably. As you would expect, this change of temperature drew more guests out onto the Yorktown’s large viewing decks. The heights of the massive mountains that surrounded us were now visible; glaciers that had retreated far back into the valleys could now be seen with the naked eye. This was turning into one of those beautiful, sunny, warm, clear Alaskan days … and everybody felt it!
The timing of this weather coincided perfectly with our arrival to Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers – highlights of Glacier Bay National Park. The captain pulled our small ship directly in front of Margerie glacier, turned off the engines, and let us rest there for a while so everybody had a chance to observe and photograph this massive 250ft tall , 2 mile wide frozen river of ice. It was so peaceful. There were no other vessels in sight. We had the whole place to ourselves. We sat in collective silence, and in awe, with the Alaskan sunshine gently warming our smiling faces. The glacier was so massive, so beautiful, so inexplicable. At this moment, I was consumed by a universal feeling of peace, contentment, and total appreciation and respect for nature; and judging from the expressions draped on the faces of my co-passengers, I know I wasn’t the only one.
In the dining room later that evening, most dinner conversations were, understandably, focused on the days magical events. A buzz of excitement reverberated throughout the room as the guests enthusiastically discussed the new experience that they now shared in common with their fellow travelers. The low level murmur of voices was suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted, however, when somebody shouted “Whale!” Sure enough, as if anything could make this an even better day, a Humpback whale playfully swam past the portside window of our dining room while we were having dinner!! I couldn’t believe it. Everybody got up from the dining tables, gathered towards the portside of the vessel, and watched this massive creature glide on by.
After this incredible display, I returned to my table, speechless; and with a big smile on my face I raised my glass to my dinner partners and toasted to one of the most incredible days of my life!! Simply amazing!
Ever since returning from the cruise I have been racking my brain, searching for descriptive adjectives that could adequately describe the aesthetic natural beauty of Alaska –and also my emotional and psychological response to this magical place- and I give up! I have determined that saying Alaska is beautiful, very scenic, or amazing is akin to saying that seal tastes like chicken. There are no set of flowery, descriptive adjectives that can deliver an accurate picture of what an experience in Alaska is like.
I think I’ll take Kevin’s approach when speaking with friends and relatives back home. I think ill simply tell them: “Alaska is Alaska, you’ve got to experience it yourself to fully understand!” and leave it at that.
This trip easily surpassed my expectations and reminded me of my deep-rooted love for Alaska. I am happy to share my experience and knowledge with you, and help you, too, experience the vacation of a lifetime!
Adventure Coordinator AdventureSmith Explorations