In the 21st century, wilderness is mostly an illusion. Even in Utah, you only get a taste of it in national parks and designated wilderness areas. A sense of the vastness of nature is hard to come by in the Lower 48. Only a journey through the archipelago of Southeast Alaska offers a real glimpse into one of the last big places. There’s nothing like viewing a cracking, booming glacier from a kayak to make a human feel small.
Here is Salt Lake magazine's guide to exploring Alaska:
Whether your trip begins or ends in Juneau, make sure you leave time to eat at Tracy’s King Crab Shack—serving crab bisque, crab cakes and king crab legs with butter and beer. Yes, Tracy claims to have “the best legs in town.” 356 S. Franklin St., Juneau, AK, 907-723-1811
(un) Cruise Alaska
The best way to see Alaska is on the water or in the air. If you opt for water, find a small boat, not a cruise ship. Otherwise you experience a floating city, rather than the Alaskan wild. Un-Cruise Adventures lives up to its name. Forget the shuffleboard and giant buffets—this company is committed to showing you what’s out there. Small, environmentally sensitive crafts are able to go into places, and linger, where larger ships are prohibited, allowing travelers to get off the boat and experience Alaska face-to-rockface.
Un-Cruise ships vary in degrees of luxury, but all are small enough to get close to the land, ice and animals. We boarded the Wilderness Explorer, a 186-foot ship that holds only 74 guests in 37 cabins. The Wilderness Explorer looked like a rowboat compared to the cruise lines’ floating cities we encountered, but its three-to-one guest to crew ratio and cozy size meant a voyage both personal and unforgettable.
Your fearless leader
Every voyage has an excursion leader who plans the day’s activities—ours was Randall Tate who spends winters in Antarctica and summers in Alaska. But he’s familiar with some landlocked wilderness, too: When he heard we were from Utah, he asked “Have you ever been to Hell’s Backbone?” Tate recharted the ship’s route with the captain according to the weather and whales spotted. The crew is young and knowledgeable–a passionate group of naturalists, botanists, geologists and biologists, including a poet and a musician or two.
Hike the muskeg
“Muskeg” is the Cree word for bog, the kind of squishy acidic meadows found in Alaskan and other boreal forests. The muskeg is a weird glade of small ponds clogged with yellow lilies, bonsai-sized trees, clumps of carnivorous sundew and apparently equally carnivorous mosquitoes surrounded by stands of Sitka spruce and hemlock.
Take your two-person kayak through flocks of murres, marbled murrelets and sea ducks to the shoreline cliffs where bald eagles nest and puffins roost.
What to read
Travels in Alaska, John Muir. The patron saint of American wilderness spent months in Alaska and Glacier Bay over the course of several years. A student of glaciology who believed ice had helped form his beloved Yosemite Valley, he was particularly excited to see live glaciers. You will be, too.
Photo by David Julian
We saw bears on land through our binoculars, but in a skiff outing to Marble Island, no visual aid was necessary: The Steller’s sea lions lie in back-to-back masses, the giant beach masters challenging each other’s piece of rock with roars and bared teeth. Harbor seals pop out of the water like jack-in-the-box clowns spying on the boat, harbor seal families ride by on ice floes and sea otters backstroke while they open mussels on their tummies. It’s a Disneyland of arctic fauna cavorting in a sea dotted with improbablly blue icebergs.
Whales are number one on the most-wanted-to-see list of every passenger—every day. The endangered giants migrate from Hawaii to their feeding grounds in Alaska. The Wilderness Explorer is so small it can weave slowly amid the playful mammoths, hear them breathing and reverberate with the impact when they breach and then hit the water in a 79,000-pound bellyflop.
The huge chunks of glacial ice in the water and on the rocky shores are shockingly blue, almost turquoise, because the extreme density of the ice compressed over millions of years absorbs every other color of the spectrum except blue.
Glacier Bay National Park
No place in all of this national park’s 3.3-million acres is more than 30 miles from the water. Glacier Bay, at the heart of Alaska’s fabled Inside Passage is just a part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site, one of the world’s largest international protected areas.
Un-cruises begin or end in Sitka, a tiny (pop. 9,000) town barely clinging to the continent. Dominated by the onion dome of the Cathedral of St. Michael, the town was called Novo Arkhangelsk when it was under Russian rule, and a distinct Russian flavor still overlays the native Tlingit village. Some of the church icons date back to the 1600s.
Even a 186-foot boat committed to sustainability needs a well-stocked bar. A pre-lunch Bloody Mary at the Douglas Fir bar or carried out on the open deck for wildlife viewing became a daily ritual after the morning excursion, and sipping a blue cocktail—chilled by a sliver of million-year-old blue glacial ice—is undeniably thrilling.