Xtreme cruising with Un-Cruise (Alaska 2015)

Alaska’s renowned Inside Passage kept popping up as an option for our next destination.  Almost everyone we knew who had sailed this legendary waterway – parents, friends, friends of friends – raved about their great voyages aboard opulent ocean liners.  We’d get as far as selecting a cruise line, an itinerary, and travel dates but then my index finger would remain poised, hovering over the mouse, refusing to “CLICK HERE” to “BOOK NOW”.

I’m an independent, typically solo traveler, and my husband loathes crowds.  We couldn’t commit to absorbing Alaska’s serene wilderness with 2000 (or more!) other passengers. Then we discovered Un-Cruise with their tantalizing promise: Unrushed – Uncrowded – Unbelievable.  Within minutes we selected their flagship, the fifteen-year-old Safari Explorer, a 145′ long, twin-engine ship with 18 cabins holding a maximum of 36 passengers.   Unrushed – Uncrowded – Unbelievable proved far more accurate than anticipated.   More than once during our cruise the mantra “everything works out in the end. If it hasn’t worked out, it’s not the end” swirled through my mind.

DAY 1:  Juneau – Friday, June 26.  We gather with the 33 other passengers at the historic but undistinguished Baranof Hotel, named to honor the first governor of Russian Alaska.  We wait patiently, past the time of reconnoitering then past the time of departure.   We had noticed the Explorer moored at port earlier than scheduled but didn’t really suspect any problems.

Until Captain Rod walked into the hospitality suite.

Calmly reassuring, he advised that the Explorer needed a replacement actuator (the electric motor that controls the throttle).  Marine safety dictated that they could continue their itinerary back to Juneau but prohibited a departure from port until the engine was repaired and inspected by US Coast Guard.  Captain Rod confidently stated that the actuator would arrive from Seattle tomorrow on one of Air Alaska’s numerous early morning flights.

Visualizing a ruined vacation, we groaned collectively, murmuring among ourselves.  Captain Rod countered that Un-Cruise staff members had arranged a selection of activities for us tomorrow morning anticipating that we would leave harbor early Sunday afternoon.  But – just in case – afternoon excursions had also been planned.

After settling into our comfortable cabin we scouted about the boat then acquainted ourselves with fellow guests enjoying very welcome welcome-drinks, including my favourite Veuve Cliquot.

DAY 2:  Saturday, June 27. MORNING:  At 05:30 hours the tug Kodiak King drags us into the channel as we abandon our spot at the dock now reserved for a sister ship.  Fog (clouds reclassified when within 50’ of the earth’s surface) had created a diaphanous curtain between us and anything further than 100’ away.

Following a spectacular breakfast created by Chef Joe who knows how to create delicious vegetarian meals (and who knows that pasta, rice, and breads are carbs not vegetables), the Bo’ swain Jill ferries us to port.  Jeff and I and another couple are driven to the local ski hill whose entrepreneurial owners have devised one of the best and safest ziplines we’ve experienced.

For sure this isn’t the trip we’d planned.  For many of us, the selling features of an Explorer safari were waking up within apparent reach of glaciers, then slipping into kayaks to paddle amidst icebergs, seals, and whales. All before breakfast!  Yet, whizzing through recently carved paths in the forest canopy, zip-lining 50-100’ above streams, boulders, and bears energized me.  I loved the spurt of sought-after adrenalin racing through my body each time I leapt from the narrow platform encircling the tree, jumping into the void.

Our fellow travellers disinterested in this extra adrenalin chose a city tour of Juneau, considered Alaska’s most beautiful city; a tour of the salmon hatchery; a visit to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centre & Observation Deck; or a gondola ride to the restaurant, gift shop, and scenic lookout at the summit of Mr. Roberts.

DAY 2: AFTERNOON.   Captain Rod and his maintenance crew remained absent during lunch, preoccupied with fixing the boat.   For our afternoon adventure, we rode the tram up Mt. Roberts hillside.  Heading toward the 3,819’ peak, we meandered on rolling hills overlooking Juneau and the Gastineau Channel.  Along a rocky trail through towering pines and flowered meadows, we dodged Hoary Marmots.  On far-off hills we spotted grazing Black Tailed deer and a black bear.

After another great evening of cocktails and dinner, Captain Rod greeted us with GOOD NEWS: the actuator had arrived and had been installed.   Then, he told us the BAD NEWS.  Maintenance issues had not been resolved: the engineer had diagnosed the need for a new Mother Board.  However, he had tracked one down in Portland and, as with the actuator, the Mother Board was scheduled to arrive from Seattle tomorrow on one of Air Alaska’s numerous early morning flights.  Déjà vu all over again.

The gnawing pain of Captain Rod’s nascent ulcer was etched upon his face as he and Jill K., our Activities Coordinator (who was getting much more practice at last minute coordinating of unscheduled unforeseen activities than she could have expected), detailed tomorrow’s journey.  They apologized for the gremlins thwarting our plans but assured us that our plight was better experienced at port than at sea.  As a former airline pilot, I understood this rationale.  Most emergencies experienced while driving a car are easily remedied but boat captains and airplane pilots do not have the luxury of roadside service stations – or the shoulder of the road!

DAY 2: SUNDAY JUNE 28 –  All 35 of us participate in today’s catamaran excursion to Endicott Arm, the voyage and the destination glacier considered by Captain Rod to be one of the most spectacular in Alaska.  He is right.  In addition to calving glaciers we spot dozens of seals, some nursing infant calves.  And we’ve had two days of almost continuous sunshine.  Rain in Juneau is so prevalent that locals have dubbed a sunny day the result of cloud failure.

As the catamaran traveled north, we convince ourselves that the boat has been fixed and a departure from Juneau is imminent.

Captain Rod meets us on the dock, at the gangway.   Smiling, with pain, he advises that Dan, the owner of Un-Cruise, will be speaking with us after dinner to discuss our options.  This won’t be good news.  But we’re pleased that Dan hasn’t sloughed this meeting onto the shoulders of an employee.  And we’re impressed that Un-Cruise has now paid for two days of unanticipated expenses: all activities, plus ground transportation, lunch and all beverages including alcohol on the rented catamaran, and gratuities.

Dan enters the dining room as we’re finishing dessert.  Moving from table to table of six guests each, he introduces himself with a friendly smile.  At the third table, he’s interrupted by a man from another table who interjects with an emphatic “We think it’s time you talked to all of us”.  (At this point the distinctive definitions between a traveler and tourist leap into my mind – at least one of us is a tourist, who one expects nothing unexpected and expects everything to be like home).

Dan handles this very well, finishes his conversation with the third table then moves to address us as a group.  “So (he smiles, sheepishly) we all know this just isn’t the trip you wanted.  This isn’t the trip we wanted for you!  But you’ve had two days of exploring the area at our expense.  We all hope the boat will be fixed tonight or tomorrow but things are not going the way we expected so we obviously cannot promise that.  The Mother Board is installed but programming is more complicated than anticipated so we’ve recruited a programmer from British Columbia scheduled to arrive early tomorrow morning.”  Déjà vu all over again.

“Here’s what we can offer.  Option 1: you can leave tomorrow.  You will have had two free days.  We’ll pay for your flight home and we’re going to reimburse 100% of your Un-Cruise expenses.  (We all murmur with pleasure – and surprise).  Option 2: stick with us, stay onboard, see what happens.  We’ll continue to pay for day trips as necessary and we will reimburse 100% of your expenses.  And we’ll deduct 25% from your cruise.  For those who stay, we’ve reserved seats on Air Alaska tomorrow to Gustavus (Goo-STAY-vuss), booked rooms for two nights at two different lodges, and reserved space on a Glacier Bay cruise.  Hopefully the boat will be repaired and will meet you in Gustavus.”

While I’m thinking what a great deal, what a great company, and how can we lose?  six others (including Mr. Tourist) disagree and immediately signup for early departure.  By morning six others will leave with them.  23 optimists remain!

DAY 3: MONDAY JUNE 29.   Bussed to Auke Bay.  Eventful morning counting humpback whale tails on Auke Bay after which a happenstance encounter introduced me to Captain Alan, a fellow memoir-writing student with whom I had corresponded during our Gotham Writers online courses.  Though no one voiced any objections, being bussed from place to place certainly is one of the drawbacks of our amended itinerary.  After a late lunch, another bus ride delivered us to JNU airport for Air Alaska’s 13 minute flight – in a B737 – at 6,000’ ASL. Though apparently ludicrous, this leg was one short (well, very short) leg of a much larger route.   Post-landing, our group separates into two with some going to Gustavus Lodge and six of us driven a few more miles to Bear Track Inn, a spectacular retreat created with massive BC fir logs.

DAY 4: TUESDAY JUNE 30.   Up at 05:30 for vehicle transfer to the boat docks at Glacier Bay Lodge for an all-day cruise though the serene fjords of Glacier Bay where we see a pod of cavorting humpback whales two minutes from the dock, two cruise ships (only two allowed per day), more Humpback Whales, Harbor Seals, Harbor Porpoises, Killer Whales, Steller Sea Lions, and Pelagic Cormorants, Tufted Puffins, Common Murre, and Bald Eagles.

DAY 5: WEDNESDAY JULY 01.   Six of us paddle kayaks along the shoreline of Pleasant Island, guided by Gary Carlson, senior guide and owner of Spirit Walker Expeditions.  Jill K. worked miracles for this trip: he assigns most trips to his staff but without his participation, we wouldn’t be kayaking!   The Pleasant Island trip is a kayak excursion to “Pleasant Island Wilderness Area, Icy Passage” for lunch and a hike but Gary keeps laughing, saying that we’re seeing more humpbacks than they normally do on their Whale-Watching Trips.  Surrounded by frolicking whales, we group together and paddling away if they approach.   (Jeff & I are reminded of Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas who hadn’t read the memo about maintaining a minimum 10’ separation from observers!)

Before returning to dinner prepared by Bear Track’s remarkable chef, our group reassembles to hear Jill’s news that the ship is steaming northbound to meet us!   Our elation is short-lived: a text message soon arrives stating that an engine seized a mere 2 hours out of harbour.  The gremlins were rejoicing after a very successful week.  In addition to the Explorer’s continued predicaments, our unique backpacks had been left on Seattle’s ramp (they arrived on the next flight) and some flights to Juneau were re-routed completely as maintenance crews struggled with runway repair issues.

WEEK’S END, THURSDAY, JULY 02.  The boat hadn’t been repaired before our Sunday morning departure from Juneau but we had loved our floating hotel with comfortable cabins, delightful staff, and superlative meals.  We’d done almost everything we planned to do though neither in the style nor the order that we had expected.   Our final adventure with the Un-Cruise gang was another ad hoc event in a twenty-seat war-canoe on Mendenhall Lake that saw us paddling hard and fast trying to stay warm in the 50F drizzle-then-downpour.

Proving that the crew had a great sense of humor, Un-Cruise Guide Alex titled her end-of-week PowerPoint photo show: The first REAL Un-Cruise!

FRIDAY, JULY 03: FINAL DAY IN JUNEAU.   We finished our week with an impromptu trip booked the previous day.  Guided by Ken of Pack Creek Bear Tours we spent 7 hours tracking Brown Bears on Admiralty Island, part of Alaska’s ABC Island Group.  Admiralty Island has an estimated 1600 Brown Bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) the largest concentration of brown bears in the world.  Though omnivorous, Admiralty Island’s subspecies of omnivorous Brown Bears thrive on a plentiful diet of rich salmon and therefore are much larger than (yes, that’s right – larger than) their subspecies cousins, the Grizzly Bear.

Accompanied by Howard and Debra, our new friends from Un-Cruise, we snuggled inside a well-maintained DHC-2 DeHavilland Beaver powered by a vintage radial engine, departing from the floatplane water channel runway parallel to Juneau’s paved runway. Having worked with Flight Safety/DeHavilland and flown hundreds of hours piloting the DHC-6/300 Twin Otter and the Dash-8 (DHC-8), I settled into the right seat, feeling at home for the thirty-minute flight.  The flight was uneventful (the way you want flights to be) as we soared through cerulean blue cloud-failure skies.  The temperature was a balmy 75F, the winds light and variable puffs.

Delicate ripples defined the water’s surface.  Every floatplane pilot knows that it’s not IF but WHEN an accident occurs but this was a perfect day to demonstrate perfect landings. The pilot exceeded my expectations.  I thought fondly of my floatplane days learning on a light-weight Taylorcraft then steering the hefty Beech 18/D18S from lake-to-lake in northern Ontario. (And then I thought of another unexpected delight of the week: my serendipitous encounter with the daughter of Walter & Olive Ann Mellor Beech!)

We were rewarded for our patience. Six bear sightings including one that waltzed up to the berry bushes directly below our viewing platform then sauntered across a beaver dam, and another remarkable courtship dance between two teenage bears.

As for the Safari Explorer?  We’ll be sailing the Hawai’ian islands on her in February: she has a new actuator, a new Mother Board, and TWO new engines.  Oh – and in addition to our free Alaska adventure and our 25% discount we received the standard $200 per person reduction in fees for second-time travelers.  Want to join us?  www.un-cruise.com.  You won’t regret it.

Lola Reid Allin
Photographer, La Quinta Photography
http://www.lola-photography.com

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Lola Reid Allin