Alaska Adventures: Alaska Small Ship Cruise by Schooner

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Some updates from our Alaska Adventure small ship cruises this summer, 2013, sent via sattelite from the 92-foot schooner Maple Leaf, our “cruise ship”.

Updates from the July 7-17th trip by naturalist Mary Morris

July 7 to 9 – Prince Rupert to Prince of Wales Island

Whales – humpback and orca

We’re just preparing to spend our third night about MV Maple Leaf, after another day full of experiences including low tide ogling, calm-water cruising and marine mammal viewing. On our first afternoon departing from Prince Rupert, within an hour or two of  Captain James saying ‘no guarantees’ for seeing wildlife, we had spotting 6 or 8 humpback whales while crossing Chatham Sound, headed to our first overnight anchorage at north Dundas Island. Spectacular sunset and twilight, looking off towards Green Island lighthouse.

We were underway on Day 2  near first light, which is pretty early these summer days, so we would have time to clear customs in Ketchikan, our first landfall in Alaska. Flat calm, we could hear three species of thrushes singing from the shoreline: varied, swainson’s and hermit thrushes. Off ahead, really close to shore, First Mate Greg spotted the for-sure shape of the tall black dorsal of a male killer whale, headed north parallel to our course. We watched with binoculars as we approached and spotted at least three more whales, two middle sized females and one had a wee small youngster alongside. So calm, we could hear and sense each exhalation, we watched as the whales pushed up the surface of the water in glassy dome over their head before they took a breath. And all this before breakfast!

Ketchikan, Alaska

Captain James executed a perfect parallel parking job alongside City Dock, right next to Front Street, downtown Ketchikan. Although we were not the biggest ship in the harbour by a long shot (there were four ginormous cruise ships in port) we were the most beautiful. Many cruise ship guests waved to us and took pictures of Maple Leaf from the street level above the dock.

Everyone enjoyed their walking tours of Ketchikan, from the boardwalk and heritage buildings along Creek Street, to the loop around the upper town by the fish ladders. The Totem Heritage Center, the little museum and Ray Troll’s shop were highlights. Several of us bought great maps at the fabulous bookstore so we can keep track of our route for the rest of our trip.

Tongass Narrows, Wild Islands, Beaches

We cruised north through Tongass Narrows and saw amazing double brilliant rainbows to wrap up the day, finding a quiet anchorage amid the Tatoosh Islets.

Low tide in the morning gave us the first taste of exploring the intertidal from the zodiacs. We watched minks foraging along the edge of water, clams squirting all around on the tidal flats. We also went ashore to investigate what looked like a huge anchor windlass, left over from what must have been a large wooden ship, only the giant metal winch and bollards left.

We circumnavigated one of the islands in the group, going ashore to see the forest and beach on the west side of the island and spotting a bald eagle that had landed right onto the water maybe trying to pickup a fish off the surface. Calm and still water looking into Behm Canal.

South Etolin Wilderness

In Clarence Strait, we planned an excursion by zodiacs and as we were pulling into south Etolin Island, suddenly we’d attracted a speeding group of Dall’s porpoise zipping around, across and under the bow…back and forth and staying with us for what felt like ages. Many of us had the time to make lots of video, punctuated by enthusiastic squeaking and grinning from us all hanging over the gunwales.

Zodiac exploration was during high tide, watching a humpback cruise across the bay and dozens of pairs of marbled murrelets peeping and diving. At one point, the heavens opened above us and torrential downpours had us seriously testing the quality of our raingear before the squall passed and we had watery sun to bring us back to the mother ship. We snuck through the gentle current draining the passage between the western islets to see two groups of deer feeding in the salt marsh there.

Back on board, snug as can be with wet gear steaming dry in the heat of the engine room, we settled into a feast of seared tuna, spinach salad and polished off generous helpings of Chef Rafe’s honey cheesecake. We settled in for the night at sheltered anchorage next to Shrubby and Bushy Islands (really, that’s what they’re called on the chart) near the northeast corner of Prince of Wales Island.

July 10-11, Prince of Wales Island to Kake (Frederick Sound)

Wrangell Narrows and Petersburg

Early on the morning of Day 4, July 10, we pulled anchor in the quiet cove near the north end of prince of Wales Island in time to catch the tide to transit through Wrangell Narrows. En route across upper Snow Passage we spotted the spouts of about five or six humpback whales, as the morning sun broke through the clouds. The light on the misty hills of north Zarembo Island was telephoto-worthy.

The transit through Wrangell Narrows, headed north towards Petersburg took us four hours, partly because it’s 35-km long and we were going against a couple knots of current to keep our course steering most effective. Navigation markers bristled red and green towers the whole way, some sections marked with huge orange range finder markers. A few places had wide soft mud flats, incised with meandering drainage channels for side streams from the marshes lining the passage. We saw dozens and dozens of bald eagles, scavenging along the water line on the low tide. Festoons of kelp hung around the range marker towers and most of those seemed to have one or two eagles perched beside the light on top too.

As we passed by the busy waterfront of Peterburg, there were flocks of gulls around the fish plants and fish boats at the docks. Just north of Petersburg, we saw our first iceberg (!) and crossed the turquoise-green water of south Frederick Sound to anchor near Cascade Creek mouth.

Cascade Creek, Rainforest, Waterfalls

The well-maintained  boardwalk on the first part of the trail took us to alongside the tumbling, rumbling creek. Just upstream, a view spot led to a ‘maid of the mist’ experience of the shimmering sheets of fine, drenching spray blowing across the mossy hillside, along with an incredible roar of the creek. Delighted to spot a pair of american dippers, happily streamside in the deafening tumult near a trail bridge crossing the upper canyon.

Kupreanof Is., Frederick Sound

We anchored for the night just in time to watch the sunset after dinner, perfect pink reflections on the mirror of the bay on north Krupreanof Island.

Next morning, we headed west and stopped to do a little (successful!) jigging. We spotted several sea otters, likely mums with youngsters riding hugged to their chests, near the reefs where we were fishing. A delightful and unexpected sighting! as previous trips had not seen sea otters in many sea otters in Frederick Sound. Harbour seals watched us go by too, shiny heads poking up from the kelp bed.

Kake, Alaska

The tiny village of Kake lived up to its reputation as ‘the sweetest little town in Alaska’. Word traveled fast that the lovely Maple Leaf was at the dock. Locals stopped to chat and advised us to walk over to the stream to see the run of chum salmon, and look for bears…which we did. From the safety of the road bridge, we watched  a yearling black bear casually pull a big chum salmon from the creek and carry it off, still flapping, into the trees. Dozens of bald eagles were along the stream too, wrestling and shoving to get the best bits of fish carcasses left along the bank. We all walked up the hill, to pose by the worlds tallest totem pole, which looks out over the strait. The lower pole has a carved half man – half halibut. Thanks to everyone in Kake for the friendly conversations and warm welcome you gave us.

July 12, Baranof Island to Admiralty Island

Warm Springs & the Dock Community (Human and Non-human)

Friday morning: We were all very pleasantly surprised to find a big space at the dock at the Baranof Warm Springs for late arrival last night. Bio-luminescence was amazing with swirling fish around the dock. Several seiner crews were there to help catch lines and shine flashlights on the dock rail as Captain James executed a perfect parallel park. We started off the day with a walk up the boardwalk to the hot pools for a soak before breakfast. Big natural pools are hot and hotter and pour down into the rushing tumble of the creek. Back at the dock for breakfast, we watched a family of river otters under and over the dock, chasing a huge school of herring and hissing at us from under the dock. We were eye-to-eye through the cracks between the decking. First mate Greg got images with the underwater video of one otter coming right up to bite the camera!

We met other people at the dock, including a whale researcher working there at Baranoff on humpback feeding behaviour. Certainly lots of research subjects for him right at hand. And, we met an author of a great cruising guide Glaciers, Bears and Totems which we added an autographed copy of to the on-board library.

Sea Lion Sensation

We crossed Chatham Strait back towards south Admiralty Island and spotted sea lions diving and feeding in the shallows near Point Gardner.The sea lions were cavorting around the surface, and we were amazed to see several tossing salmon casually over their heads and eating them in two bites.  We anchored the mother ship for taking the zodiacs out to watch up close.

In the kelp beds streaming in the current near the offshore island, several groups of curious sea lions came up to check us out as we drifted by. Both skiffs had go-pro cameras to hold underwater and we got amazing images of the huge graceful sea lions whizzing by. Those guys can turn on a dime! so maneuverable…A couple of groups of sea lions seemed to be following first one boat then the other, taking turns coming up close, eyes wide and whiskers twitching, all looking over at us humans looking back at them. The sea lions were really checking us out, zooming by close and under the bow. Great to watch from blue boat as the sea lions were inspecting the red boat. We all got great photos and videos and used up all our batteries. The best sea lion watching!  ‘oh my God! oh my God! what a trip!’ one member of the party was heard to exclaim.

We got good looks at a bunch of sea otters too, at the edges of the kelp beds. They’re almost as big a head as small sea lions. Great to have had a close look with river otters earlier too so now we can really tell the difference in shape and habit of the two different kinds of otters.

We went on to stretch our legs on a small estuary beach near Pybus Bay and saw lovely salt marsh with a meadow of sea asparagus. We found some bear tracks on the beach and saw where they had been bedded down and foraging in the meadow.

Several of the fishing folks dropped at line while at anchor and amazingly immediately were successful including one catch of a big staghorn sculpin and a true cod at once! Two fish on one hook! How amazing is that?!

We had dinner underway northwards on east Admiralty to be ready to awaken tomorrow morning at Pack Creek for what we hope to be some great brown bear viewing. En route, we watched humpbacks rising and blowing as the sun went down.

July 13, Admiralty Island and Stephens Passage to Wood Spit

Hello team Maple Leaf at HQ — True story: blogger Mary Morris got up an extra half hour early to get caught up on the report to you for the past spectacular few days and before I could even get the email addresses into the header (0530 ADST) Maple Leaf was slowing to make a gentle turn to observe the back-lit vaporous breaths of three humpback whales bubble net feeding!! Naturalist mm took over and went down to the main cabin with wakeup call: Bubble feeding whales! Okay to come up in your pajamas! bring cameras!….more on that experience later!!!  (we did see the lunging whales, feeding with mouths wide)  – the captain, July 14

It’s actually taken us all a few days to kinda absorb our experience watching the brown bears at Pack Creek on Admiralty Island. We arrived right on schedule for our appointment with the wardens at the reserve near the northeast corner of Admiralty Island. The low tide flats of the creek delta were glowing golden yellow of the rockweed mat as we came in from the ship in both zodiacs.

As we watched from the spit near the beach marking the boundary of the bear viewing area, we could see two small bear cubs pelting up across the beach headed for the treeline, and running across behind the other two wardens who’re one their way to the main viewing spot further along by the main stream. We watched the cubs’ mother coming up the beach clearing concerned about the whearabouts of her twins, and staring hard at the two wardens who were maintaining their position, and doing their best to look non-threatening to the mother bear.

After just a few long moments, the mother bear seemed to hear the babies answer her and she disappeared from our view, around the corner after the cubs. Meanwhile, we could see about a dozen more brown bears, on the lower river across the flats from where we were. Lots of bald eagles were clustered around the delta too. The chum salmon were running and the bears and eagles were gathered to feast.  What a spectacle!

We made our way over to the viewing area along the bare upper beach, staying together as a group, and met the other two wardens there, Aaron and intern helper Justin. A few bears were downstream splashing and playing in a deep part of the stream.  It wasn’t long until we saw the mum with the two small cubs make their way back down the flats, splashing down the creek and having to swim across the deeper parts. Suddenly, two sub-adult bears were chasing each other across the upper meadow to our left and they ran full tilt right towards us, through the flats next to the viewing area. Those of us who could raise their cameras in time got amazing pictures of the pair, water and fur flying, the second bear in hot pursuit of the first, tearing off over the beach and down to the creek flats. They started to wrestle with each other again, this time in the creek.

We honestly thought that it wouldn’t get much better than that until the same pair of nearly-grown bears strolled back across towards us again and, once up onto the meadow right next to the safe viewing area, they started playing again, standing on hind legs and boxing, pulling on ears and pushing each other over and down, rolling across the dune grass and cow parsnip.

We were simply and truly awestruck, and our guides did not need to remind us to be still and quiet as I am pretty sure we all held our breaths. The only sounds that come from us humans was the mad clicking of camera shutters.

The guides explained that these two bears where a three-year-old male and four-year-old female that had spent the last year together as close buddies, as the male was spending his last year with his own mum. The two young bears seemed to have become best friends and where notorious for spending a lot of time playing and wrestling together.

The guides also said that while they do see this type of behaviour sometimes, they are there with the bears all the time and we were really lucky to be there to see that within a few minutes of being there. Some members of our group were heard to say “Oh my God! Oh my God! Wow!!!!”

After lunch back at the ship, we returned to the viewing area and had a sunny afternoon watching more bears, this time through the spotting scopes and binoculars mainly. With so many bears together, sharing the salmon (we watched one chase one salmon right out of the stream onto the bank before picking it up in its jaws), how amazing to be able to have the time to just observe how the different ages and sizes of the bears interact with each other.

Later that afternoon, we headed south again in the calm calm water of Seymour Canal, watching humpbacks blowing and diving. One whale made a bubble curtain so clearly off the bow sprit that we could observe the technique as we drifted, listening.

Anchorage near Wood Spit for the night, ready to head into Endicott Arm the next morning to visit Dawes Glacier.

Days 14-17 to come…

For more information about our trips or taking one yourself, please visit the page for our Alaska small ship adventure cruises.


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