Small Boat, Big Adventure: Getting Up Close and Personal In Alaska

The adventure begins on an overcast, drizzly day aboard the 42-foot Alexandra, a commercial fishing boat that hauls halibut in the spring and tourists in the summer. There The Alexandrawon’t be any fancy buffets on this five-day Alaskan “cruise,” but an endless feast of discoveries hiking, kayaking and exploring one of Alaska’s brightest crown jewels, Prince William Sound.

An offshoot of the Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound encompasses 15,000 square miles of cold, chilling waters. It has more than 3,000 miles of jagged and rugged forested shoreline, virtually uninhabited except for a few small towns and native villages. Dotted with tiny islands, inlets and fjords, the sound includes 150 glaciers within its sprawling boundaries.

Protected from ocean turbulence by barrier islands, the sheltered waters are home and playground to a rich abundance of wildlife, fish and fowl. There are a dozen marine mammals, sundry land animals, 220 varieties of bird and five species of salmon among a host of other fish.

It is also, for lack of a better word, stunning. Everywhere one looks is postcard perfect: calm, reflective waters, lush, green, snowcapped mountains against a backdrop of sky that changes from vivid blue to powder gray. The first days you gush words of awe, but superlatives soon fail and ultimately you surrender in silence to nature’s unsurpassed beauty.

Our guides are Babkin Charter owner Brad von Wichman, a native-born Alaskan who grew up fishing and skiing in the “last frontier,” along with family friend Linda Basset, a New Jerseyian by birth, Alaskan by choice, who’s spent more than 25 years working in the state’s fishing and charter industries.

Time on Prince William Sound is magical; everything familiar is somehow not. The late June sun rises early and stays out way past dark, forgetting to set till almost midnight. Weather conditions change quicker than a minute, and as often. One learns to slip into and out of rain gear, rubber boots and extra layers in a flash. The waters are green-gray, ice chunks are blue, and small, delicate flowers are chocolate brown, and stink!

On this day, sky, water, and low clouds, each a variant shade of gray, wrap around the tiny islands and mountainous shorelines like a gauzy, gray cocoon, and somehow, despite its huge expanse, the sound seems intimate and cozy. Its air is full-bodied fresh—clean and crisp, absent the muted smells of the city; the only sounds, a lone seagull’s cry mingled with the low, steady drone of the boat’s motor.

Seal at Nellie Juan Glacier

Seal at Nellie Juan

Wildlife is everywhere and in a fun reversal of role, they seem to seek us out. Otters and seals pop up like jack-in-the-boxes, first here then there, curiously studying our moves, or stealthy stalking our meandering kayaks; porpoise, cavorting near shore, suddenly appear at the boat’s bow, surfacing and diving at warp speed as they escort us, then disappear as quickly as they arrived. In stark contrast, a huge humpback whale lumbers alongside the boat on its quest in the bay for a meal. Eagles patrol untamed shores, and the colorful puffin assemble on the rocks and along ledges of a tiny isle, while bright orange-beaked oyster catchers glean pickings along rocky beaches.

Among the sound’s 150 glaciers, 17 are tidewater, which means that these massive ice structures fill up the mountainous valleys on land and sweep down to the water. Temperatures can plummet 10-15 degrees in front of these ice giants, and you best bundle up in hat, coat, scarf and gloves to view.

Aboard the inflatable Zodiac skiff, we bob like a big gray apple in the ice-littered waters of Port Nellie Juan, shivering against the wind, eyes attentively glued to the glacier of the same name, as we watch and listen for the tell-tale signs of calving ice—huge chunks that break free, slamming with explosive force into the waters below. To pass the time we’re entertained with stories of admiring onlookers who ventured too close and were caught off guard by the mini tsunamis created by the falling ice. Our adrenalin kicks up a notch each time Brad repositions the Zodiac a little closer for a better view.

Because the mountains that surround it are filled with glaciers and it sits next to a relatively warm ocean current, Prince William Sound tends to be wet and cool. It is, after all, part of this continent’s far most northern temperate rainforest. On the sound there is no waiting for the rain to quit. We don waterproof gear, zip lock the camera into a baggie and ease into kayaks. It seems the smaller the boat, the more intimate the experience; from the Alexandra, to the Zodiac, to the kayak—this is one step removed from diving in.

At surface level we troll the shorelines of inlets and coves, studying the terrain above and below the waterline. Each cove is strikingly different. Underbrush and wildflowers cover the treeless slopes of one, a soaring spruce forest thick with verdant foliage the next; but high at the tops of each, small, glistening streamlets converge into roaring waterfalls. In the tranquil, cold 49 degree waters below, hundreds of majestic, white moon jelly fish pulsate pass; the rocks are moss-covered and starfish encrusted. A young octopus with its many tentacles scurries across the bottom. In front of a fresh water stream, the waters are thick with chum and pink salmon in preparation for their final journey.

Back on board the Alexandra, it’s time to haul in shrimp pots dropped overboard the day before. From a depth of 600 feet, the pots are pulled aboard one by one to reveal their catch—batches of spot shrimp, the largest of the five species found in these Alaskan waters.

Prince William Sound is filled with history, too. Captain James Cook sailed its waters in 1778 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage; in modern times, two tragedies have eerily occurred on the same day, 25 years apart. In 1964, the sound was the epicenter of the infamous 9.2 magnitude, Good Friday Earthquake, which shook for five minutes, generated a 27-foot tsunami and killed 168 people. Then, ironically on Good Friday 25 years later, the Exxon Valdez tanker struck the Bligh Reef, spilling more than 250,000 barrels of oil, the equivalent of 11 million gallons into its pristine waters.

On a beach, we find remnants of research equipment used to test for the lingering effects of the oil spill 20 years later, at a time when our own Gulf is filling up with the oil from the Deep Water Horizon’s runaway well.

Nights are spent anchored in quiet coves. We gather in the boat’s galley to share a hot meal and stimulating conversation. Sleep comes easy at the end of a long day, despite the dark-less night.

The voyage ends too soon, on a brilliant, blue sky day where it began in the tiny harbor at Whittier, but the adventure lives on. The late anthropologist and author Loren Eiseley once wrote, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

We are believers now, captives of Prince William Sound’s magic. We will return.

Editor’s Note: The Prince William Sound excursion was part of a tour arranged by Wildland Adventures, an eco-tourism company out of Seattle, Washington, which included visits to Prince William Sound and the back country of Denali National Park.

Author’s Note: This appeared in Life Is Good Magazine.

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