Whale Watch

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By Amy Ullrich

Southeast Alaska enjoys about 18 hours of daylight at the summer solstice, stretching time so that this 12-day cruise at the end of June aboard Maple Leaf seems like the activity equivalent of weeks. Nonetheless, my body stays resolutely on its East Coast schedule; I occasionally fall asleep over my plate in daylight that is still fading at dinnertime and rise with the sun at 4 a.m. to enjoy the utter serenity of each evening’s anchorage emerging out of magical early-morning light.

Distances stretch, too. It’s 500 miles or so between Juneau and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, on the Alaska Marine Highway’s most direct route, but direct routes are not what cruising this wiggly place of islands and islets, passages and straits and channels is about. It’s about going north to head south and slithering through impossibly narrow channels when the current is slack, so that our serpentine course eventually takes us about 900 miles, much of it through wilderness. It’s also about doing only what the weather permits, for despite the plethora of snug anchorages and the wind barrier provided by walls of snowcapped mountains—the same wind barrier that keeps us motoring most of the time—weather predictions must be taken seriously when cruising this far north.

The temperature is, surprisingly, in the 90s when I arrive in Juneau, find the boat, and drop off my bag. Maple Leaf, a 92-foot two-masted schooner (75 feet LOD), is a standout at the dock. Built in 1904 as a private yacht, she had a varied career before a restoration in 1986 put her into the eco-cruising business. She now carries nine passengers on an annual itinerary that starts in the spring in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, offers trips of varying duration up the Inside Passage as far as Juneau, then returns on the same route to her home waters. Her captain,Kevin Smith, has owned her since 2001 and, I’m sure, never has to worry about what to do in his spare time. Her crew on this trip includes Aaron, the mate; Maureen, the deckhand and a woman of many talents, including stompdance instruction; Erin, a fabulous and inventive cook; and always a naturalist or anthropologist.

The question of what I will do with a duffel full of Polartec and foul-weather gear in this heat is quickly answered the next day as we head into Tracy Arm, a long (25 miles), narrow (about a mile wide) fjord that runs between 2,000-foot cliffs and is refrigerated by ice floes topped with birds. Its glaciers are active, growling and splashing as huge chunks of ice drop off into the water. This scenario becomes more interesting as we take to the Zodiacs for a closer look at the snout. Read on: Cruising in Alaska

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