Hear about Cruising Southeastern Alaska on UnCruise Adventures as the Amateur Traveler goes on a cruise where dressing for dinner and bingo are replaced with kayaking and bushwhacking.
Chris and his wife explored with 84 other passengers on the Safari Endeavor the islands, inlets, and glaciers of the Alaskan panhandle.
This cruise started in Juneau, ended in Juneau, and never stopped in any other cities or towns in between. Instead, the Safari Endeavor spent two days in Glacier Bay National Park (the big boats can’t) and the rest of the week exploring bays and inlets on Chichagof Island, Baranof Island and the mainland. During the week the passengers kept a daily tail of wildlife sightings which included Alaskan brown (Grizzly) bears, black bears, moose tracks, sea lions, seals, sea otters, a river otter, humpback whales, orcas, Dall’s porpoises, bald eagles, puffins, seagulls, and many other native birds.
Each day the passengers chose between kayak trips, hiking, bushwhacking in the trailless wilderness, stand-up paddleboarding, and sightseeing by skiff. All of those activities were included but the smaller ship did not have a pool, climbing wall, theatre, spa, jewelry store, or casino. There was no bingo, napkin folding, or dance performances. This is a different kind of cruise. A cruise where you sleep well because you were kayaking for hours, and not just because it has an open bar… although it does.
Explore the Alaskan wilderness with Chris and UnCruise on this the 10th-anniversary show of the Amateur Traveler.
Watch the video of our adventure Visiting Alaska with UnCruise Adventures – Video #81.
video course – Blogging for Beginners with WordPress
Glacier Bay National Park
UnCruise Adventure – “We Stop for Wildlife, Weather and Whim”
Photo – Can you spot the small ship?
map of Glacier Bay’s receding
John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire
With thanks for 10 years!
Chris: Amateur Traveler, Episode 473.
Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about gray whales, Alaskan brown bears, bald eagles, and bushwhacking as we do a different kind of cruise in southeastern Alaska.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. And this is the 10th anniversary show of the Amateur Traveler. Amateur Traveler started 2005. And as far as I can remember, it started on July 2. I think it actually started a couple weeks earlier, but that is the date you will find on the first episode. So that is our official birthday. We’ll talk more about that later on, but first, let’s talk about Alaska.
A cruise in the Inland Passage in Alaska may or may not be in your plans. But we’re going to talk about a different kind of cruise today. We’re talking about a cruise ship that has no pool, has no rock climbing wall, no water slides, no casino, no art auctions, no evening shows with singers and dancers. You don’t have to dress up for dinner, and you may only get one option for dessert. My wife and I were given this cruise by the company whose name is UnCruise. And at the risk of giving away the punch line, we’ve already put down money on another cruise.
The cruise we went on, which was called Discovers Glacier Country, started in Juneau, ended in Juneau, and visited exactly no other cities, towns, or villages. This is a trip about wildlife. And this is a trip where the typical day sounds like this [water flow 00:01:55].
Those of you who are kayakers may recognize that sound. It’s the sound of a double person kayak paddling through one of the many bays in the area.
Before we start talking about what you do on a cruise like this, let’s talk a little bit about getting there and then about southeastern Alaska in general. To get to Juneau, you can either fly or take a ferry. Flying was what we did. There are no roads that go to Juneau. It’s on the Alaskan Marine Highway, but the Alaskan Marine Highway is a system of ferries.
Southeastern Alaska is over 35,000 square miles. Now, that’s a little smaller than Indiana and a little bigger than the state of Maine. It has only 71,000 inhabitants. And almost half of those live in the city of Juneau. It’s an area that’s almost entirely national forest, the Tongass National Forest, and national parkland, Glacier Bay National Park.
We flew into Juneau. And we flew in with some time to spare, which is always something we recommend for a cruise. Just in case you miss your flight, it’s always better to have a little extra time, especially on a cruise like this where we couldn’t catch up at the next port, at the next port of call because there are no ports of call per se except little bays and inlets out in places without roads and without cell service and without a way to get there.
We spent a night in Juneau at one of the hotels downtown. We did a couple of activities arranged through the visitor’s board, which I would recommend. We went up in the gondola, the gondola which leaves from one the main cruise terminals. So it’s not very difficult to find. And both the gondola and the view from the top have great views of the bay where Juneau is located.
While we were up there, we did a short hike out to Father Brown’s Cross. Father Brown was one of the founders of a group of volunteers that to this day maintain the trails in the area. And I would recommend that if you go up, you do allow enough time to do a little hiking, get out in the woods there. We saw a couple of trees that had totems carved in them, not sure what that was about exactly. We didn’t do, but there is also a video presentation up there about some of the local tribes from the area.
We also, of course, walked around Juneau. Juneau is not a large city as we’ve said, about 35,000 people or so. And it is the capital of Alaska, so it’s one of the smaller capital cities in the United States. You can tell that even with that half of the city shuts down, we were told, after the cruise ships go away in the wintertime, about half of the city from the main downtown all the way out to the cruise terminal is really targeted at cruise ships and the guests that are on cruise ships. There were I think five different cruise ships in town when we were there, five different ships coming and going. And there’s quite a lot of shopping there that is targeted towards them. So you get your t-shirts and your tanzanite and all of those sorts of things. And then there are a number of different outfitters who you can buy different trips. The tram, as we said, is right there. But there are also trips to do dog sledding, which we did not do. And then the trip out to the Mendenhall Glacier, and that’s pretty much a must-do.
Now, it’s going to be relatively crowded because a lot of other people do that. But in terms of an easy to get to the glacier, you’re not going to find one in the United States. I think that is easier to get to because you can get there on a bus. And it’s a large glacier. It is spectacular and worth seeing. Again, when you go out to the Mendenhall Glacier, I would recommend that you take the time to do some of the walking there. Do some of the hiking and hike out to an area that has a waterfall on the right-hand side, some better views of the glacier. And then also you get to see a very nice waterfall.
Well, that was kind of Juneau. One of the things that’s interesting if you look at the pictures I have from Juneau, I took a lot of pictures, as I always do. When we were up on the tram, you could look down on the harbor. And I have a picture that shows three different cruise ships. One I think is The Radiance of the Seas. So that’s a real Caribbean line ship. And behind that is a smaller ship. Now, the Royal Caribbean Ship is, as you look at the town, the largest building in town, if it were a building. It’s just really quite large. And it’s not the largest ship they have by any means. And then behind that is a ship that it was one of the high-end luxury cruise lines. And so I think it may have been Seabourn that was there. And so it’s about half the size of the Royal Caribbean Ship.
And then if you look over to the right, there’s this really small-looking ship. And that’s the ship we’re on. It’s an 86-passenger ship. And so it is a lot smaller than your large cruise ships. It’s big enough for what you need to do because, again, this particular type of cruise, the reason why they branded it with UnCruise, it used to be American Safari’s, which both of those give you some idea what they’re about. It’s really an active person’s cruise.
So some of the people on the ship were younger. Some of the people on the ship were retirees. But really, everybody on the ship was a little more active than you see on some of the regular cruise ships, and many of them very active, more active than I am.
If you look at a map of southeastern Alaska, right outside of where Juneau is, there’s Admiralty Island, which is a rather large island, maybe 150 kilometers long. And we basically sailed around that island, including all the way up to Glacier Bay National Park, which we’ll talk about in a minute. So there are a couple of different main islands there. There’s Admiralty, there’s Chichagof, there’s Baranof. And then, of course, there’s the Alaskan coastline. And we spent some time in each of those.
And a typical day for us, the night before, you’d get together with the expedition staff, and you’d talk about the different options that were available. And there’s not a huge variety of options. You’ve got shore hikes. You’ve got bushwhacking, which we’ll talk about in a minute. You’ve got guided kayaking. And then you might have some free kayaking, where you can stay in this area, but you don’t need a guide. And you also have skiff rides, where you can go out on a boat either a Zodiac or another boat that has more seats with backs on it and go photograph the scenery. Or go see the wildlife. And that’s definitely one of the attractions to this area. You’re in an area where there are Alaskan brown bears, which are also known as grizzly bears if they are not near the water. Chichagof Island, for instance, which was the first island we stopped at, has one of the largest populations of Alaskan brown bears. Although we didn’t see any, I think at that particular stop, we didn’t see any until the next stop. But we did, for instance, see bald eagles. In fact, we saw so many bald eagles on this trip, we had no idea when we first saw them on Chichagof that this was going to be pretty much a daily experience. They really come back in numbers since they were endangered so many years ago.
And on Chichagof Island, which was our first stop in the Idaho Inlet, we did our first of three bushwhacks. And we say a bushwhack, remember there are no trails in most of this part of southeastern Alaska. And in some places, the brush is fairly thick. This particular place was in Evergreen Forest, and so the brush wasn’t all that thick. And so what we did is we ended up finding a game trail. And so you’re traveling down a trail that the deer and the bears have basically made through the woods rather than any particular people. And you’re splashing across creeks.
In fact, the recommended gear is not hiking boots but rubber boots. This particular area of Alaska is very wet normally. It gets over 200 inches of rain a year. And so even if you don’t bring rubber boots and rain gear, they will be issued to you because even just the landing you’re going to get your feet wet because you’re not pulling up to a dock except in one case. We pulled up to a dock in one part of Glacier Bay.
I think what attracted us to the idea of bushwhacking, of going out there and finding the trail, where there may or not be a trail, is still something that I really like. I still like the idea of going out and making a trail.
And the first one we went on was fairly easy, probably the easiest of the three that we did. But whenever there was a bushwhacking opportunity, we took it. It meant we had to do a little less kayaking than some of the other people because that would be the other really popular experience. But it just seemed like bushwhacking wasn’t something we were going to get a chance to do just anywhere.
Our next stop was in Glacier Bay. And Glacier Bay is someplace that you can see on a full-size cruise ship. One thing that’s different is the full-size cruise ships, the bigger cruise ships, the Royal Caribbeans, the Seabourns even, are not allowed to overnight in Glacier Bay. And only two of them come into Glacier Bay on any given day. They limit access. You can get more expedition-size ships like the ship that we were on. And we actually spent the night in Glacier Bay and picked up a ranger, which we had for two days, who was helping explain some of the glaciers that had formed this as well as some of the wildlife that we were seeing.
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So we stopped at the park ranger station and stopped at a dock for the only time we did outside of Juneau in this entire trip and got a chance to do the only hike that we did actually on trails.
The other interesting thing to know about the big cruise ships is that we were told by the rangers they compete for who can come in by who can run the greenest. They run a different fuel while they’re in Glacier Bay just to try and preserve this amazing landscape.
See, amazing landscape, I didn’t know the history behind Glacier Bay that, basically, if you look at where Glacier Bay was at the time, for instance, the United States was formed as a country . . . I’m recording this on the 4th of July weekend here, and we’re celebrating more than 200 years of the United States. The entire Glacier Bay, if you look at it on a map, was a glacier at that time. In fact, the glacier actually extended out from Glacier Bay and has been receding at an amazing rate, some 16 miles up into where it is now. And a lot of the glaciers in southeastern Alaska are still receding.
At the end of the northern end of Glacier Bay, there are two glaciers side by side that we saw, one of which is definitely receding. The other one is still growing or is still a healthy glacier if you want to put it that way because the area gets so much snow that it replenishes the ice of the glacier.
We took our time sailing up Glacier Bay, up towards those glaciers at the end, I think, in part because we could, because we could spend the night in Glacier Bay. We didn’t have to cruise in and out really quickly. And so in fact, the plan was that we would eat our dinner that night in front of the most magnificent glaciers in the park and have it all to ourselves because the large cruise ships had to be out at sundown. And on the way that day, we saw mountain goats. We saw black bears in some of the inlets.
One of the sayings for UnCruise is “We stop for wildlife, weather, and whim.” And because it is a small ship and has a relatively flexible itinerary, it really does divert off into that bay to see if you’ll see any bears or stop when whales swim by or basically take a break.
In the evenings, for instance, one of the expedition staff, one of the guides would usually do a talk on any given evening. And it might be on glaciation, or it might be on the local birds. Or one of them was on the history of John Muir in this area, who was one of the people who really promoted Glacier Bay as one of these unique places. It’s one of the reasons that it became a national park.
The John Muir presentation got interrupted twice though for someone spotted a group of humpback whales. And then somebody spotted a pod of orcas. And by that point, we had to wait and finish the presentation on another night because everything on the ship basically stops when you see a bear or when you see a pod of whales or something like that. That is one of those experiences where when we were cruising along, I think it was on the last night or the second to the last night, and a pod of Dall’s porpoises and I don’t know if you know this one, but it’s like a small killer whale is what it looks like. It started playing in the wake of the boat. They started swimming along with the wake of the boat and jumping. And really, at that point, all other conversations stop, and all eyes are fixed on this amazing sight. And really, they came and played along until the ship actually came to a stop, in which case the wake went away and the dolphins as well.
But anyway, on that first day, we lingered to see bears. We lingered by the island where the sea lions were and that was overrun with birds as well . . . and really just enjoyed the wildlife as we cruised up Glacier Bay.
Woman 1: Did the tail come up?
Man 1: Yes.
Woman 2: Yes. We’re diving.
Woman 1: Oh [inaudible 00:15:29] sea lions down there.
Chris: On the second day that we were in Glacier Bay National Park, we did yet another bushwhack. But this was different because one of the interesting things is because the glaciers have pulled back so quickly, it is a place where you can see what happens with plant succession when the glaciers pull out. So if you think about it, the glaciers destroyed all plant life that was in the valley when they were covered with hundreds of feet of ice. And so what happens when a glacier recedes is you have at first no plant life at all. And then you get your algaes and your lichens. And then you start to get different plants that will fix the nitrogen into the soil, plants like fireweed, which is a brightly colored flower. And those will be followed by alder bushes. And then the alder bushes will give way to cottonwood trees. And then eventually the cottonwood trees will give way to spruce forest, which is what most of southeastern Alaska looks like.
But this particular bay in Glacier Bay hasn’t been uncovered for that long. And so it’s still going through the process. You still had to push your way through the alder bushes.
And you still had a cottonwood forest. It hadn’t all been replaced yet by the spruce forest. And so we hiked our way and pushed our way across and under and through some of the rivers there and across the marshy lands. And you don’t get real far when you’re bushwhacking like this. But of course, as we went along, we would see moose tracks. And we would see bear tracks. And we knew we that we were out there. In fact, as we landed the guide is calling out moose bear, although what he said he was really afraid of was . . .
Guide: A little more scared of rabid red squirrels are probably my worst fear. I would have everybody kind of stay seated here until we get the boat situated. I’m going to hop off and we’ll get some stairs set up for you. And then . . .
Chris: The tricky thing is they tell you, when you see a bear, don’t run because then you’ll look like prey. But if you see a moose, then you should run and get behind something like a tree because they have short attention spans and they’re not very bright. And we never quite clarified what should happen if we see a moose and a bear. But that situation didn’t happen. We didn’t see any moose. We did see tracks of moose. The one animal I would have loved to see but we didn’t see was moose. Although, I would love to see them from a bit of a distance.
After we exited from Glacier Bay, we cruised down to the south and went into one of the inlets in Baranof Island and repeated the process, went out on the kayaks though this time.
One of the things that I liked about the UnCruise that made it easier is what they did is they took a jet ski bay and put two of them in the back of the boat and turned them into what they call an easy dock for the kayak. And so to start your kayaking, you get in the boat on dry land or on the ship really, and then they just back you off on these rollers into the water. And then, similarly, when you want to get out, you head into the easy dock, and they pull you up. You’re not trying to get in and out of a boat while it’s in the water. And so it made it easier to do. And I think it made the kayaking, therefore, a little more approachable. Almost all other kayaks are double kayaks that also have a rudder system in the back. And I find that that also makes it easier. My wife and I first did double kayaking in Aruba. And I don’t know if you know, but they sometimes call the double kayak a divorce boat.
One thing that they were very clear on they said is whichever one of you normally in a couple will take the keys and drive and then that seems like the normal experience, that’s the person who’s in the back with the rudder. And the other person is in the front. And they have found that that works best in terms of having the experience be a memorable one.
While we were in Baranof Island, we saw more eagles, of course. We also saw a river otter down by the water. We got quite close to eagles because there was what looked like a deer that had been killed. And the eagles were fighting over and then were feeding off of that deer right by the water’s edge as we kayaked up to it.
The next day, we did our third and final bushwhack. This one was a little more uphill in land that was quite spongy. Now, normally on a trip like this with as much rain as they get in Southeast Alaska, we would have had a lot more rain on this trip. We had an unusual amount of sunshine. There seemed more of a drought there this year. And so we didn’t need our rain gear quite as much as you would normally expect to need it. But it was interesting as we were doing this hike because there were probably about three inches of moss that we were hiking through almost the whole way as we were climbing the hill here. It was very surreal, almost Dr. Seussian how green and spongy the landscape was.
And our guide was there to explain some of the local flora, for instance, the skunk cabbage . . .
Guide: . . . is riparian. It likes water. But it has to be well-drained. So you can see that this is not necessarily standing water. If this was to stagnate, the skunk cabbage would not be doing as well. But these are some big broad leaves right? I think they’re gorgeous.
Anybody live on the East Coast? Any East Coasters? No. There’s skunk cabbage on the East Coast as well. The only difference is one of the advantages it has, like I said, skunk cabbage is one of the first things to pop through. Like look how big these already are. These die at the end of the year or at the end of the warm season. And so these have already sprouted up in our spring.
Chris: And then we also went out on a kayak trip that day and had probably our best experience. Now, I’ve got audio from this but you’re not going to hear what we’re hearing, just our reaction to it. But there is off in the distance a whale that has repeatedly being slapping its tail on the water.
Woman 4: There it is.
Man 3: Oh wow.
Woman 4: My goodness.
Man 3: Oh my goodness!
Chris: They don’t quite know what this behavior is, but it seems to be some signal to other humpback whales. And humpback whales were the most common whale we saw when we were in the area.
We would also paddle around the corner of an island and see eagles.
Woman 4: Oh my gosh!
And there’s something else.
Chris: Right there that we’d take to flight or paddle by heron or be stopped at one point by six different seals, six different harbor seals that would spy up and peek above the water to keep an eye on us.
And then on the final day of the cruise, we went to Endicott Arm. And at the end of Endicott Arm is a glacier that is very active in terms of calving and rode the Zodiacs right up to the glacier. I say right up to the glaciers but 200 feet of ice above the water and 200 feet below. And so you stay a quarter mile away for safety reasons. But still, it feels like you’re getting very close to the glacier that way.
And we’re riding past this very blue glacial ice that has calved off of the glacier. In fact, large pieces were calving while we were there at the glacier.
Woman 5: Oh yeah.
Woman 6: And like Matt was saying, we’re only seeing 10% of this piece of ice right here.
Woman 7: [inaudible 00:22:57]
Chris: Although I didn’t capture the sound for any of that, just didn’t get the timing right for it. But go look at some of the pictures that I have of some of the glacial ice. I thought it was fascinating how many different shades of blue you could get in just one piece of ice. And of course, most of the ice that we were seeing is only the 10% that was above the surface.
But again, the safety reasons that not only do you have calving, which means the glacial ice is falling into the water, but you also have some of it that is calving from below the water and then coming up, bobbing up to the surface of the water. And so you don’t want to get too close to that. And so you see pictures for instance of the boat and then the glacier behind it. And it looks like the boat is right next to the glacier. But it’s hard to understand the scale of that ice, that wall of ice being 200 feet tall, just the part that you can see.
And that was probably one of the most amazing days being out there in a Zodiac and being that close and basically having a glacier to ourselves, a whole bay to ourselves.
And that’s the experience we had at the Un-Cruise. There was a whole board of all the different wildlife we saw, all the flora and fauna. And it’s a very small group experience. It’s 86 people. So you get to know quite a few people on the boat.
It is not an inexpensive cruise. I think when I was looking for how much it would cost to do the cabin we were in, which was the smallest of the cabins available for the rest of this season, the prices ranged from a little over $4,000 to a little less than 7, so not an inexpensive cruise. But everything is included as well. All the excursions are included. One massage is included. They don’t have a spa per se. Obviously, all the meals, but also all the alcohol at the cocktail hour and at dinner whatever.
The only thing that’s not included is the gratuity for the crew. I believe they recommended 10% for that. And the crew was amazing. Really, the crew is one of the reasons why we have put down a deposit on another cruise. Not on this cruise, but my wife specifically wants to do a cruise on this boat because in the winter time, they go down to Baja. And the winter time in November, they’re down in Baja. And you can kayak out there and swim with whale sharks. And then come around to January time frame, and you can be down there when the humpback whales are down there, and they’re calving. And that just sounds amazing. I think the prices and the cruises down in Baja are a little less than that. They also do cruises in other places like the Galapagos and such, which I think are even more expensive that I’d love to do some day, but we’ll see about the cost of that cruise.
But I started to say the crew, the crew was amazing. One thing that’s a little unusual versus the large cruise ships is your crew is almost entirely American. On the last cruise we’re on, most of the crew was Indonesian or Filipino, but they pay a little higher wages on this. And most of the crew is doing two or three different things. Your dinner steward is also making up the cabins. They’re working hard, but they also seem to be having a great time.
There really was a sense of fun on the ship, not just from the passengers and that sense of adventure. But you would see that when the crew did have some time off, they would be out there on a stand-up paddle board. Or they would be jumping into the water with the rest of the crazy people jumping off the end of the deck, jumping off the ship into the very cold water.
Even the captain would get out from the bridge and picked us up on one of the excursions. This was our full day bushwhack. And he met us with some hot chocolate and some optional whiskey to put in that as well.
So that’s UnCruise. And that’s the experience that we had. And again, it’s an expedition cruise style. Those are going to be a little more expensive, but they’re very different experience. And if you are not one of the people who likes the dressing for dinner, if you’re not one of those people who really lives for the art auctions and the shows but likes more time in the wilderness and have the money to afford it, it can be a good option for you.
It is a bit ironic that on this, the 10th anniversary show of the Amateur Traveler, it is not an interview show because most of the shows of the Amateur Traveler, as you probably know, have been interview shows. And I suspect we never would have made it 10 years if I had just, one, had to rely on my own stories but, two, not had your stories, which made it all a bit more interesting for me. So my thanks go out to all the many people who have been guests on the show especially those who have been repeat guests, who have come time and time again to tell us of their wonderful travels.
It’s also a bit ironic that I’m editing this show by myself because I also never would have made it 10 years if not for the editing of, first, Mike Christensen, my son, and now, Jeffery, who edits the show. And that’s at least five hours of my time that I get back every week because of their efforts.
And speaking of their efforts, I could have done this without people listening, but I really wouldn’t have. And certainly, if it weren’t for all of you who are listening, I wouldn’t get offered trips like going to southeastern Alaska, which as you could tell, we did enjoy.
So thank you to all of you who have listened. I know there are some of you who have heard every single show of the Amateur Traveler, which humbles me, gratifies me, and amazes me. But thanks for your continued devotion to the show, for your feedback, and for your support.
I asked it on last week’s show, but I’ll ask it again. I’m always curious where you have gone because you heard about it on the Amateur Traveler.
With that, we’ll end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. But we’ll be back again next week. If you have feedback you can send an email to host at AmateurTraveler.com or, better yet, leave a comment on this episode at AmateurTraveler.com.
The transcript of this episode is sponsored by JayWay Travel, experts in Eastern European travel, for which I am grateful. You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram @Chris2x. You can certainly, certainly leave a review for this show wherever you found it. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.