August 2022, after more than two years of Covid, it sounded like it might be safe to risk going on my long-awaited Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise complete with exploration in zodiacs, motorized inflatable boats holding eight to ten people. One of the many reasons I chose this trip was because I wanted to see Glacier Bay, a world heritage site, which is a restricted area, allowing only those ships with permits.  

Finally on our flight to Sitka, we were eager to board our ship. What we didn’t know is that this would be an iffy expectation. When we got there, Sitka was hidden by a thick cloud cover and after circling several times and two attempts to land, our pilot decided to land in Juneau. While some people thought this an inconvenience, I discovered it was an opportunity to tour our inside passage route from a low-flying plane. There were breathtakingly green trees and craggy rocks leading to rocky, ice-draped mountains. When the clouds cleared, we enjoyed a breathtaking sunset from our flight into Sitka.

Our friends were not so lucky. Their plane was grounded in Ketchikan and after lodging overnight, when they finally got to Sitka, they had a harrowingly fast zodiac ride to catch up with the ship. It had to make it through the narrow passage with the tides. Our boat was on a schedule and had to move on.

On our first zodiac ride with a naturalist, I remember seeing an abundance of Blue Spruce trees, which my son Jeremy had told me make wonderful guitars. In the shallows, we saw spiny black urchins and red starfish.

One of the highlights of the whole trip was watching the humpback whales in their cooperative hunting and feeding. Bubble-net feeding is seen only in the southwest panhandle of Alaska. In a hotspot for nutrients, the whales dive and swim in circles rounding up and confusing schools of tiny herring. The herrings won’t cross the circle of bubbles that the whales create. One whale is the leader “calling out the shots.” Suddenly the whales lunge simultaneously, mouths open, filtering the herrings out of the seawater. Observers can guess where the whales will come up by the gulls that circle overhead to pick off the left-over scraps of fish. Next, the whales dive, flukes (tails) in the air, and repeat this for hours. 

Humpback whales bubble-net feeding in Alaska

Humpback whales bubble-net feeding in Alaska

Our zodiac naturalist guides took us on outings to see groups of otters cuddling together to share body heat (called a raft) floating on their backs, babies on their bellies. Their dense fur has been sought after since the late 18th century for its warmth and beauty. Another trip took us to see bears scaling a spawning stream up the rocks of a waterfall to chase wriggling struggling salmon and feeding them to their cubs.

Another day, we boarded zodiacs to bushwhack through the rainforest. We often had to wear our knee-high rubber boots to get off the zodiacs into shallow water to wade to shore. A rocky beach led to coastal meadows of fireweed to a hemlock forest with cypress trees, colorful fungi, mushrooms, and lichen.

One morning we woke to find our ship docked at Petersburg, a charming Norwegian village known for fishing and canneries. Fishing boats, long-liners, purse-seiners, and gill-netters crowded the harbor. The city was founded in 1896 by Norwegian immigrant Peter Bushman who made his fortune by harvesting ice from nearby LeConte glacier and shipping it all over the world.

Indigenous people have lived in the area since before Alaskan settlers arrived. The Tlingit canoed through the sea relying on the abundant sea life for survival as well as berries and game animals for food and fur. They continue to have a rich cultural and social life in the Southwest panhandle of Alaska. 

On our journey, we watched glaciers calve and crash and marveled at the dense ice. After many years of accumulation and compacting, oxygen is squeezed from the ice until there is less than 10% air creating a sapphire blue color. Through Alaska’s inside passage, we viewed many glaciers, ice fjords, icebergs, bergy bits, and growlers. Along the way, we saw eagles, gulls, and puffins, harbor seals and stellar sea-lions. 

In spite of the expedition company requiring proof of vaccination and Covid testing to board the ship, masking in common areas, and creating pods for dining companions, Covid did creep onto to ship. When we returned home, all six people from our table including us contracted Covid. Oh well.