Cruising the intricate waterways of 'Southeast'
Imagine that you are moored on a small cruise ship in still, black water, in a cove surrounded by tall spruce trees. Beyond the inlet are mountains, brown-black and remote, their sides streaked with snow. It is twilight, and the silence of night sounds is broken only by a delicate ''whoosh'' and a faint rippling of water.Skip to next paragraph
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A few yards away, an eagle glides on eight-foot wings, scanning the water. Suddenly it dives, breaking the glossy surface with pale yellow feet - and, as suddenly, flies up again, with a silver fish dripping from its talons.
The quiet of the cove is filled with the swift efficiency of eagles. Every tree has a bright spot of white - an intense head, watching. They fish all night , in the continuing twilight of Alaska.
Admiralty Island is known for its nesting bald eagles, and Alaska has more bald eagles than the whole of the rest of the United States combined. The ship is the Majestic Explorer, chartered for this cruise by Special Expeditions. Its shallow (8-foot) draft enables the ship not only to enter the cove of the eagles , but to travel the intricate waterways of the archipelago known as ''Southeast.''
The cruise is designed to ensure that Alaska does not pass like a film off the port bow. The goal is to bring aboard, in a sense, what exists beyond the railings. Five naturalists are on hand, as well as a captain who knows the water intimately, following his intuitive knowledge of wildlife rather than a rigidly set schedule. There are films by Joel Bennett, a native-wildlife specialist - and Joel himself. There is a library, along with daily summations of geological, zoological, and botanical sightings. And there is extensive time on land.
The landscapes of Southeast Alaska vary widely. Even forests show slight variations one to another - the result of different eras of deglaciation. Humbers (rubber landing craft) take passengers ashore throughout the range - from tidal flats to glacier face.
The ability of the ship to roam into the many and varied small inlets through the whole of ''Southeast'' makes the trip unique. Ferries stick to the middle of the broadest channels. Larger ships cannot get into the shallow, intimate anchorages; even if they could, their greater number of passengers would alter the sense of place. In a kayak or sailboat, you can get a clear picture of any one area - but only one, without unlimited time.
Nowhere else in Alaska is there such an abundance of wildlife. Nowhere else in the world is there the spectacular combination of a major coastal mountain range, great tidewater glaciers, and lush rain forest.
It is wilderness; there are little pockets where man has had some impact, but they're minimal compared with even the most remote sections of the ''lower 48.''
There is only one 15-mile area that can be reached by road, making the region virtually inaccessible except by sea and air - and not even that when the weather is bad.
The feeling of isolation began as we flew into Sitka the first morning of the trip. Below, crisp navy-blue water surrounded the scattering of islands. Sun glinted brightly off the waves but did nothing to warm the austere green of the unbroken spruce forest. Heading for our ship in late afternoon, we walked by a big tub of red snapper and the grizzled old fisherman who had just caught them. Young Indian men moved about on the waterfront, their straight black hair swinging long over plaid shirts and well-worn jeans.
Masts bristled in our wake as we headed out of the harbor into Peril Strait, a channel so narrow that other cruise ships cannot negotiate it. Clouds of gulls swirled around us, brilliant against the slowly darkening mountains. The islands closed in as clouds smudged the mountaintops. At the forest's edge, long sweeps of gray-brown gravel extended out into the water. The water itself changed from hard glittering blue to black.