March 2020 Family Travel: Cruising Alaska’s ABC Islands

Family Travel: Cruising Alaska’s ABC Islands

Exploring Alaska by kayak.
Exploring Alaska by kayak.
Photo by Jonathan Kingston 
All-hands-on-deck fun in the Inside Passage’s northern reaches.
Five is the magic number in brown bear country. Two or three hikers risk surprising the animals, but the scent, footfalls, and low conversation from larger groups typically serve notice, and the shoulder-to-shoulder mass of a calm group tends to keep the peace. This is top of mind as I help my daughter pick her way through brambles and wild rye as tall as she is, stepping over scat that leaves no doubt who cut this semblance of a trail we’re following on Alaska’s Baranof Island.

“You’ve probably heard people talk about constantly calling out, ‘Yo, bear!’ ” naturalist Alberto Montaudon told us earlier, during a briefing. “We’re not going to do that unless it’s a place we risk surprising one. If you go ‘yo-bearing’ around everywhere, they’ll often walk off into the woods before you see them.”
A fresh catch. 
A fresh catch. 
Photo by Jonathan Kingston 
Now, his head on a swivel, he sings out, “Yyyyo- bear” – the one and only time I’ll hear him say it on the trip. The grass is so thick it hides anything that’s more than a few yards away, yet if a curious bear did stand up, the brush would only reach to its midriff. None do, but another group on a trail a few hundred yards away walk up to a stream to find a mom teaching her cubs to fish.

Alaska’s ABC islands – Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof – are home to North America’s highest density of brown bears, roughly one per square mile. Ravens and convocations of eagles patrol the old-growth rain forest too, while the waters around them nurture some of the richest marine life in Alaska. Remote and undeveloped, it’s a setting made for small-ship expeditions.

When I considered it for a first big father-daughter trip, I admit I had reservations. Blixa is active and likes animals and the outdoors, but day in and day out, would a 9-year-old get antsy or bored? Would all the talk about species and geography be of interest or make an impression? Would we be the two youngest on the ship?
The National Geographic Sea Bird in Endicott Arm.
The National Geographic Sea Bird in Endicott Arm.
Photo by Jonathan Kingston 
But after looking into Lindblad Expeditions’ six-day cruise from Sitka to Juneau on the National Geographic Sea Bird, I booked our flights north. The cruise is one of the company’s “Wild Escapes” series – compressed, active itineraries in Alaska, the Galápagos, Baja, and a handful of other destinations, designed for professionals and families who can’t take off for the two weeks many sailings require. Days promised paddleboarding, sea kayaking, rafting, and hikes, but as we walked around a cold, drizzly Sitka waiting to embark, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d set us up for trouble.

“I call this bed!” Blixa announced later that afternoon when entering our cabin, which was snug and comfortable, if fairly no-frills as on most expedition ships. Two single beds lined the walls in an L shape, while another held a wardrobe I soon learned was just tall enough for her to hide in standing up. A shower curtain pulled across the closet-size bathroom so that the toilet didn’t get wet. In short, it was the coolest pillow-fort of a bedroom that one of us had seen yet.
Humpback whales bubble-net feeding.
Humpback whales bubble-net feeding.
Photo by Jonathan Kingston 
A few tips for keeping city kids entertained in the wild: Identify predominant tree species by food cravings (“Hemlock bark runs in crinkly, baconlike strips; spruce’s resembles potato chips”); embrace the grotesque (a guide holding up a salmon carcass: “See, the bears can be picky and just eat the belly and the brain”); and pile on the cuteness (“Look at the sea otters – they’re rolling to wrap the kelp around themselves so they don’t drift away”). The Sea Bird’s six naturalists and other expedition staff bring fun and a sense of discovery to the wilderness: making plaster casts of bear and deer tracks, catching and releasing moon jellyfish, and giving Zodiac driving and docking lessons – a popular activity offered on Lindblad sailings with kids.

At Morris Reef in Chatham Strait, everyone stands on the bow watching seven humpback whales bubble-net feeding – an activity that only some humpbacks do, and only in parts of Alaska and British Columbia – when a naturalist drops a hydrophone into the sea. Far below, the lead whale calls and blows a bubble ring around a shoal of herring, a cylindrical “net” rising to the surface that the fish don’t realize they can break through. Whale calls wash across the deck as the pod moves the school upward, until one signals the charge: a shrill sound that builds and builds until suddenly the whales blast through the surface, mouths open – and, judging by the lucky herring or two we see wiggle free, full of fish.

Whale mouths aren’t the only thing overflowing with fish in the ABCs. On a hike in Port Althorp Bay, we step into a stream that’s ten yards across and barely shin deep, and watch it erupt with hundreds of spawning salmon. “These are pinks and chum,” Alberto says. “Who can name the five species of Pacific salmon?”

My mind races to menus and fish-market stalls as he holds up his hand. “ ‘Thumb’ rhymes with ‘chum,’ ” he says, before moving on to his pointer finger. “This is the finger you’d poke someone in the eye with – sockeye. The middle finger is tallest, the king. You wear a silver ring on this finger, and the pinky is for pink. Chum, sockeye, king, silver, and pink.”

“Do it again,” Blixa says. Alberto smiles and runs through what’s surely common knowledge to every Alaskan schoolkid, but is news to every adult on the trip.
Balancing priorities in Tracy Arm.
Balancing priorities in Tracy Arm.
Photo by Jonathan Kingston 
After kayaking and paddleboarding in water so clear you can count the sea stars on the bottom, we switch things up in Haines. It’s known as Alaska’s adventure-sports capital, and our excursions follow suit: mountain biking, tundra treks, fly-fishing, flightseeing, Mount Riley hikes, and a float through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Though we place gentleman’s over/under bets on seeing 20 eagles, the 31st that we spot on the chalky Chilkat surprises even the most optimistic in our raft – as does the sheer volume of ice we look down on that afternoon when flightseeing above Glacier Bay National Park.

That evening, groups trade stories during the Dungeness crab feast, served family-style on the paper-lined table – a departure from the plated coffee-rubbed rack of lamb, pan-seared wild sockeye, and halibut of other nights. The Glacier Bay flight is the undeniable hit, and the talk soon turns to tomorrow’s activities in Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier.
Dawes Glacier.
Dawes Glacier.
Photo by Jonathan Kingston 
Dozens of waterfalls greet us the next day at Endicott Arm, stretching thousands of feet up the fjord’s rain-slicked walls and disappearing into the gray as if poured from the clouds. Cracks and hollow pops ring out from deep within Dawes Glacier, where we watch from a safe distance as car-size chunks of ice cannonball into the water. Without warning, a slab of its face, 200 feet tall and as wide as an apartment building, breaks loose. “White thunder” booms, a massive splash explodes, and a thick wave rolls out, reflecting off the basin and causing the mini bergs to bob around our Zodiac.

Suddenly, Blixa is smiling and pointing behind us: Dressed as pirates, the expedition leader and some of her cohorts storm our boat with hot chocolate, nips of Baileys or schnapps, and extra Reddi-wip for all. As my daughter huddles over her cup, back against the cold breeze and a thin whipped-cream mustache on her lips, I wonder which parts of Alaska will stick.

It’ll be three months until I get the first glimpse, while chaperoning a school field trip outside Seattle. “Who knows how many species of salmon we have?” the instructor asks. One hand shoots up. All eyes turn to Blixa. She grins, grabs her thumb with two fingers, and proceeds to spoil his trick.

How to Cruise the Inside Passage

Lindblad Expeditions’ six-day cruises between Sitka and Juneau explore Alaska’s ABC islands and spend a day in Haines and in the Tracy or Endicott Arm fjords. Each sailing on the 62-passenger sister ships, National Geographic Sea Bird and Sea Lion, includes a naturalist dedicated to kids who tailors activities to age level. Departures: Multiple dates, May 16 through August 30.

Sea kayaking, bushwhacking, and Zodiac excursions await on UnCruise Adventures’ eight-day round-trip voyage from Juneau. The 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer spends two days in Glacier Bay National Park and calls at Haines for biking, rafting, and more. Departures: Multiple dates, April 11 through September 19.

New “Ventures” excursions on Seabourn’s 14-day Inside Passage cruises, round-trip from Vancouver, provide up-close wildlife encounters. Zodiac outings depart from the 458-passenger Seabourn Sojourn to spot Steller sea lions in the Inian Islands, while other options include bear-viewing outside Wrangell and sea kayaking in Misty Fjords. Departures: Multiple dates, June 12 through August 14.

Celebrity Cruises’ eight-day Vancouver-to-Seward voyage calls at Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. For the adventurous among the Celebrity Millennium’s 2,158 passengers at Icy Strait Point: a 1,300-foot zip-line descent, heli-mountain-biking, or fly-fishing. Departures: Multiple dates, May 22 through August 28. 

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