You won't need a tux to cruise Alaska on a halibut boat
Four days on a 42-foot boat shows one family the real Alaska.
WHITTIER, ALASKA — "Doesn't anybody know about this place?" asked 10-year-old Tom, who was on his first cruise.
It was a fair question. In four days cruising Prince William Sound, we'd seen orcas, humpback whales, sea otters, river otters, black bear, Dall's porpoises, harbor seals, sea lions, bald eagles, and puffins close-up.
But people close-up? Exactly one salmon fisherman.
An Alaskan cruise has long been a popular vacation choice. And for good reason. Alaska boasts the kind of drama - from calving glaciers to calving orcas - that invites superlatives. Much of this drama is best observed from the sea.
But what if you don't want to share the experience with hundreds of other people?
Try a small-boat adventure.
On our trip, there were only 12 passengers aboard two boats. A grandmother and six grandkids slept aboard the 58-foot cruiser Babkin, and our family of five slept on the 42-foot Alexandria, a working halibut boat. We all ate aboard the larger boat, and during the day, rode on whichever boat we wanted.
There were no private bathrooms, white linens, or cocktail dresses.
But being served by tuxedo-clad waiters can't compare to kayaking to a glacier for a chunk of iceberg. And no "children's program" can compete with climbing the mast of a real fishing boat to watch killer whales cavorting in the sea around you.
Small-boat cruises abandon schedules in favor of serendipity.
Spotting a humpback, we went out in kayaks and Zodiacs. Every few minutes the whale would surface - at one point only a few yards away - and the six children would erupt with cheers. (Between whale respirations, the children enthusiastically sang the theme song from "Titanic," which no doubt encouraged the humpback to stay down longer.)
Watching the leviathan from my small kayak, I gained a new and deep appreciation for the native Alaskans, who had the courage to hunt these 40-ton creatures from fragile boats of wood and sealskin.
Traveling the shoreline in a Zodiac, we spied a black bear loping through the trees, and a pair of river otters wrestling among boulders. The otters hid when they saw us, but their puppylike faces kept popping out of cracks, clearly as curious about us as we were about them.
"This isn't a zoo," cautioned Brad von Wichman, who, together with his sister, Alex, and his wife, Kjersti, owns the Babkin and the Alexandria. "None of the animals appears on demand."
But we had no trouble finding plenty of wildlife, and our guide, Dan Pickard, soon turned 10-year-old Kelsey and 14-year-old Lindsay into amateur botanists.
It is hard to imagine friendlier or more knowledgeable Alaskan hosts than Brad and Alex Von Wichman. They grew up fishing and skiing in Alaska with their father, George.
The senior von Wichman was a member of the first team to climb Mt. Denali in the dead of winter, in weather so horrific that the book chronicling the climb was titled "Minus 148 Degrees."
Brad met his Norwegian wife, Kjersti, when they were working together on the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Kjersti, formerly a world-class downhill skier, is the Babkin's chef.
With meals such as Alaskan king crab, salmon baked in coconut and curry, and homemade pizza for the kids, Kjersti made sure we didn't suffer any culinary deprivation in the wilderness.
One evening, Brad and Alex found a particularly beautiful cove to anchor in for the night. I went out exploring in a kayak as a mist rolled in. The effect was almost cozy as fog hugged massive rocks along the shore.
The children spent the evening cooking s'mores around a beach campfire. Later, as the children prepared for bed under Kjersti's watchful eye, the adults sneaked away to fish in the cool twilight.
Many people do know about Prince William Sound. But most stay aboard big cruise ships. The remaining few will find they have this vast expanse of roaring glaciers, humming waterfalls, green cliffs, and silent ocean all to themselves.
May is the peak of shorebird migration and the prime time for bird-watching. Prince William Sound receives slightly less rain in June than in July or August. Salmon fishing and bear viewing are best from mid-July through August.
For more Information, contact Wildland Adventures at 800-345-4453 or see www.wildland.com.
Other small boats that cruise Prince William Sound are the 65-foot Discovery (www.discoveryvoyages.com; 800-324-7602), and the 50-foot Good Times, (www.alaskagoodtimecharters.com; 907-373-7447). Anadyr Adventures offers mother-ship-supported kayak tours for small groups aboard a 60-foot motor vessel and a 50-foot sailboat (www.anadyradventures.com; 800-TO KAYAK).
Let's face it; Alaska's charismatic megafauna is pretty easy to spot. Want a challenge? Go looking for these four critters.
Wood frog. A full-grown frog is smaller than a credit card, and its brown, mottled skin makes it "disappear" in the leaf litter on the forest floor. Wood frogs are the northernmost species of reptile or amphibian in the world, surviving winters above the Arctic Circle. For three months of the year they're 'Popsicles': no heartbeat, no breathing, no brain activity, and up to one-third of their body fluids are frozen solid.
Ice worms. These stringy, inch-long creepy crawlers make their home in channels of water between ice crystals in the top few feet of glaciers, slithering up to the surface at dusk to eat pollen and algae.
Least weasel. The name is fitting. It's the smallest in the weasel family, as well as the "least big" carnivore in the world, packing a mere three ounces on its eight-inch frame.
Snow fleas. These little fleas (one-sixteenth of an inch long) don't actually bite (that particular habit is monopolized by Alaskan mosquitoes). And they aren't actually fleas, but tiny insects of several species. Snow fleas are one of the most numerous Arctic bugs. They make wood frogs look like wimps - they can survive being frozen for as long as three years.
Small boats mean small bunks, small baths, and generally close quarters. The price of getting far from the madding crowd is relinquishing some level of luxury.
You'll need to be reasonably agile to get up and down the narrow, steep stairs commonly found on smaller boats, and to get in and out of Zodiacs and kayaks.
Don't expect small-boat cruises to be cheaper than big-boat cruises. Think of it as trading on-board hairdressing and children's video night for a real adventure. For small-boat aficionados, it's no contest, really.
If your party is not large enough to book the entire boat, try to learn something about the other people you'll be traveling with. Our outfitter made sure our family was booked with another group with children (in our case, a wonderful grandmother and six of her grandkids). A lively young family coupled with a group of bird-watchers may not be a good idea.
Check out your hosts before booking the trip. If they are long-term residents of the area you're visiting, you'll learn the kind of things that never make it into a guidebook. Your travel experience will be the richer for it.