Alaska has more coastline than all other U.S. states combined, so even though we just spent four weeks exploring by RV, we knew we had to take to the sea! But we didn’t want to do some big ‘ole cruise ship—we were looking for a company with a strong focus on sustainability and adventure. UnCruise was the ticket. They have more than a dozen routes in Southeast Alaska chock-full, of glaciers, whale-watching, kayaking, skiff safaris, and rainforest bushwhacking, so we couldn’t go wrong. Knowing we wanted to explore Glacier Bay National Park and Alaska’s first capital, we went with the Northern Passages and Glacier Bay Route—a seven-night, 500-mile journey. We are so excited to tell you about this expedition, but unlike most travel blogs it’s not about where we went. Adventure cruising Southeast Alaska is all about seizing the moment and pivoting for wildlife sightings, sunshine, and smooth sailing. Let the adventure unfold!
Sitka: Alaska’s First Capital
Our journey began in the historic Sitka—the first capital of Russian America and Alaska’s first state capital. We got off our puddle jumper plane and a friendly face was holding an UnCruise sign; she swept us away to the Westmark hotel and gave fun local facts along the way. Did you know Sitka is the largest city by square miles in the USA? It also has eight national historic landmarks. The town is a fascinating mash-up of cultures from the Tlingit Native Americans, Russian colonialists, and hearty Alaskan fishermen. Walking downtown, we passed the gorgeous onion-dome cathedral, the storied Totem Square, and Pioneer Bar—an awesome dive where the clientele is decked out in rubber boots and spending habits depend on the day’s catch. P-Bar (as the locals call it) was plenty cultural, but for something more highbrow, we hiked around the Sitka National Historic Site. Their Totem Trail is set in the temperate rainforest off the bay and has Tlingit- and Haida-carved poles mixed in with the trees. We could have explored Sitka for days (see a video from our stay)but the MV Wilderness Explorer was calling.
Our UnCruise Expedition Ship
Alongside 49 other passengers, we boarded our stealthy ship. At 182 feet long, the Wilderness Explorer is the perfect size for getting into the fjords, zipping around the islands, and going places the big cruise ships only dream about. The staff brought us aboard one by one, learning our names, and making us feel right at home. Over champagne, our expedition leader Mareth introduced us to the crew—an intrepid bunch of biologists, kinesiologists, engineers, skippers, chefs, naturalists, and certifiable adventurers. The captain invited us to hang out in the wheelhouse anytime, the barman vowed to never let us go thirsty, and the lead steward encouraged us we come to him with any request large or small. We learned how the week would flow…off-ship adventures happen each morning and afternoon, excellent meals bookend all the excursions, and the hot tub is always at the ready. We quickly got with the program.
Bushwhacking the Tongass National Forest
Our ocean route moved north through the Gulf of Alaska, the Alexander Archipelago, and to the top of the Inside Passage, but the shore along the way was just as impressive. The Tongass National Forest runs up the entire Pacific Northwest coastline and blankets Southeast Alaska, making it the largest temperate rainforest in the world. Rather than let this precious landscape be a blur of trees, guides led daily bushwhacks to explore where few have set foot. We’d climb over and under Sitka spruces, sift through the bushes for berries (over a dozen edible varieties!), follow animal tracks, and examine the beauty of the boggy muskeg. The Tongass is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, though perhaps the most vital is the salmon. Millions come to spawn in its rivers and we saw them on virtually every hike and kayak we took. On one bushwhack, we stood in a tiered waterfall and massive salmon were leaping all around us! See more photos from bushwhacking the Tongass.
If we bushwhacked in the morning, we’d achieve adventure yin and yang with a kayak or SUP session in the afternoon. Exploring by small craft, getting close to marine life and feeling the ocean mist, is at the heart of the UnCruise experience. They do an orientation to make sure everyone is comfortable and no one misses out on the fun—including an 8-year old and an 83-year old on board! We joined guided-paddle sessions, where their seasoned naturalists help you spot bald eagles, smacks of jellyfish, shy harbor seals, and navigate the tidal tributaries. There were also open-paddles where you could explore wherever called to you. Mike and I were out kayaking on our own and spotted a bear fishing in the river! You never want to miss the chance to paddle, because you never know what you might find.
Cuisine & Cocktails
By the time we finished our days’ adventure cruising Southeast Alaska, we felt we’d earned a good meal and we certainly got it. Dinners were three courses, and always offered sustainable seafood and an incredible dessert from their onboard pastry chef. Even as vegans, we didn’t go hungry. Portobello steaks, Thai curries, stuffed bell peppers, pesto gnocchi, and hearty soups were just a few items on our special menu (and we know they kept the gluten-free folks happy too). We also really respected how mindful they were of food waste and plastic usage. No bottled water or even canned beverages, the only packaging we saw was the granola bar reserves. They gave everyone a refillable metal water bottles and a free-flowing tap of Alaskan beers. Did we mention, it’s all you can drink? Happy hour offers signature cocktails each night and anything you want from a premium bar—at any time. We’re not proposing drinking like a fish, but it’s nice to not feel nickel and dimed or in fear of the week’s bar tab.
Whales & The Illusive Bubble-net Feeding
After dinner on the second night we heard the captain on the intercom, “Humpback whale on the starboard side!” We were over the moon at the sight of one whale in the twilight…little did we know what was to come. We saw over 40 whales throughout the week, including a pod of orcas and the grand-slam of all whale watching experiences…humpback bubble-net feeding!!! This is a learned behavior, known by only a few hundred whales in the world, and most commonly seen in Southeast Alaska. We pulled into Chatham Strait, the deepest glacier-carved fjord in the world and a favorite hangout of these savvy whales. The captain saw the telltale sign, dozens of birds swarming around churning water, and immediately threw the morning’s itinerary out the window. The crew lowered the hydrophone into the sea and we listened to the humpbacks calling. There were seven whales “cooperative feeding,” a process of encircling a school of fish while blowing a “net” of fine bubbles, then simultaneously shooting to the surface with mouths agape to swallow them in one dramatic swoop. Watch this video to see how this phenomenon played out—not once, but nine times!!! For more photos, check out this gallery
Tip: When you see a whale anywhere in the world, be a citizen scientist and submit your photos to HappyWhale.com to help this non-profit with their ongoing efforts to study and protect marine mammals. We submitted our fluke photos and had a match! Now we can stay abreast of our humpback friend’s whereabouts, health, and happiness.
It felt like we had something to celebrate every night…abundant bubble-net feeding, bears fishing the streams, and five days of straight sunshine. After dinner, the bar would still be kicking and the evening’s entertainment would begin. Fantastic lectures—anything from glaciology, secrets of the fishing industry, to wild foraging 101—were on tap, along with a surprisingly good talent show (our guide Ben sang and played guitar better than Jason Mraz!). Then we’d stay up playing games, soaking in the hot tub, and watching the northern lights swirl around the sky (who knew you could even see them in the summer?!)
Where There Are Salmon, There Are Bears
To continue our education in salmon spawning and the importance of this fish to Alaskans, we went to the Hidden Falls Hatchery. Each year 1.6 million salmon come here and lay a total of 180 million eggs, but only 1% survive. The hatchery channels fish to the freshwater for 24 hours, then manually fuses the eggs and sperm for breeding. But first, the salmon have to make it to the hatchery. Sea lions and bears love to hang out at the mouth of the fishery and enjoy the lunch buffet. We heard of this prospect and kept our fingers crossed to see even a single bear—we saw 19, including one just hanging onto the fish ladder and two cubs learning to hunt with their clumsy paws! Truly unbelievable. Good news is that there is such an abundance of salmon, plenty make it to spawn and their babies enjoy the hatchery’s safe harbor until they are big enough to continue this circle of life in the open sea.
Skiff Safari to the Inian Islands
Waking up in the Inian Islands, surrounded by teal water, lush islets, and the glacier-capped Fairweather Range, we realized the beauty of awaking to a new view each day. (Similar to why we love the camper, but here someone else is driving and cooking!) This archipelago is absolutely stunning and rich with marine life, so skiffs are the best way to cover more ground and get closer to the action. We saw a whale in the first few minutes and then it was non-stop encounters…hundreds of cormorants, a stellar sea lion colony, a sea otter doing the backstroke with a baby on her belly, and more. Mike loved his skiff safari so much he went back for a second round in the afternoon, while I took a self-guided hike to a World War II canon on George Island. Kind of crazy to come across such a relic in the middle of nowhere, but I particularly loved the chance to explore in any direction on this bear-free island and have beach coves with sea stacks all to myself.
Glacier Bay National Park
For the grand finale, we cruised into the 3.3-million-acre UNESCO world heritage site of Glacier Bay. We picked up our very own park ranger at the crack of dawn and she guided us through the landscape and wildlife encounters. While keeping her commentary fun and informative, she was very real about the rapidly retreating glaciers and that this park may not have its ancient ice forever. The first fact that hit us hard was that Glacier Bay only became a bay around 250 years ago; it used to be an impassable wall of ice and now you can sail it 65 miles inland. Though she said, rather than despair, take moments to appreciate this incredible beauty and use it to inspire our environmental stewardship. We didn’t take this for granted and spent all day on deck, marveling at the dozens of glaciers, spotting orca whales, and toasting the beauty of Marjorie—a massive tidewater glacier that cracked, groaned, and shifted in front of our eyes. It calved huge chunks of blue ice and made cannonballs splashes that drew applause. After such a perfect week, there was nothing left to do but bask in the sunshine with a glass of champagne and sing along to the guitar in a state of utter bliss.
Environmental Stewardship, Get on Board!
Alaska is a precious place and did stir the environmentalist in us. The same month as this cruise, the current administration announced its plan to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the “Roadless Rule,” a law that protects old-growth forests from logging. The Alaska Conservation Foundation is looking to fight this rollback and we were happy to bolster their cause with a $100 donation. Whether the areas we visit are directly threatened or not, there are always conservation efforts to be done. On every paid campaign we do (see our work for SLO CAL), we’ll be highlighting awesome environmental causes and giving back 5% of our earnings to the places we explore. To do our part for Southeast AK, we also donated $100 to the Juneau Icefield Research Program and will continue our participation in the HappyWhale citizen science program, and hope you can join us in keeping Alaska the wild place it was born to be. We also ask that when you check “Cruising Alaska” off your bucket list, that you do it aboard a small sustainable tour operator, like UnCruise. They earn their spot in the Passenger Vessel Association’s Green WATERS program, working hard to reduce fuel consumption, conserve potable water, limit waste and disposable plastics, conserve energy, and practice Leave No Trace. Plus, these guys know how to have fun.
If you want to go adventure cruising in Southeast Alaska or explore any of UnCruise’s other dozen locations (Galapagos, Hawaii, Mexico, etc) you can get $200 off by telling your booking agent this code: HONEY200AK (P.S. This can be combined with guest loyalty, refer-a-friend, and other discounts)
DEAL ALERT: Save $1,200 per couple aboard the S.S. Legacy — Commander cabins and above. Promo code: EARLYBIRD20. Save $1,000 per couple per week aboard the Wilderness Discoverer or Wilderness Explorer — Trailblazer cabins and above. Savings double on 14-night cruises. Promo code: EARLYBIRD10. Offer valid on bookings made before December 13, 2019.
A heartflet thanks to UnCruise Adventures for inviting us on this Alaskan journey and compensating us for our storytelling!