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Wet and Wild(life): An Alaskan Safari

November 21, 2011 By:
Sharon McDonnell | JE Feature
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Blue glaciers float by during breakfast -- an unearthly, electric blue -- just the right color for domes of white buildings in Santorini, but mighty unsettling for chunks of ice.

Later, some of the glaciers "calve" before our eyes: Giant pieces of ice break off and crash into the sea with a thundering roar. It's close enough to make our jaws drop, but a safe distance from our skiff in LeConte Bay in southeast Alaska.
 
Learning that that uncanny blue is caused by decades of snow compressed into ice -- which pushes out the air and absorbs most light but reflects the short-wave blue rays -- does absolutely nothing to diminish its eerie beauty.
 
Later that day, I kayak alone in the bay, a 12-mile-long fjord carved by glaciers out of the coastal mountains over thousands of years. I wait until the Safari Spirit is out of sight, then stop, and allow myself to drift, entirely surrounded by that arresting blue ice and evergreen-covered mountains.
 
The silence and peace are intense. I pour a glass of wine, drink in the pure crystalline air under the sunny sky, and feel all my Type A traits just melt away.
 
I'm on a wildlife safari in Alaska's Inside Passage on the smallest of small-ship cruises; instead of a cast of thousands, it's a yacht with only six cabins on American Safari Cruises. The yachts -- including the line's other ones, up to 43 cabins -- mean we can navigate narrow fjords and dock in tiny coves that big ships can't, in the world's longest, sheltered inland waterway, sandwiched between the coast and countless islands.
 
We're here to view whales, bears, sea lions, sea otters and magnificent nature in our wildest state on a one-week sail from Juneau to Petersburg.
 
Alaska is on many bucket lists. No wonder: It's 99 percent uninhabited, boasts 17 of our nation's 20 tallest mountains -- including the tallest, Mt. McKinley, at over 20,000 feet, in Denali National Park -- more shoreline than the rest of the continental states combined, and the biggest federal forest, the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, blanketing most of the southeast panhandle with spruce and hemlock.
 
One day after breakfast, we spot whales having breakfast. We're at Icy Straits at the mouth of Glacier Bay, a breeding ground due to the abundant herring and plankton. The tell-tale rings of bubbles from their blowholes means they're busy "bubble-net feeding" -- whales swim beneath the fish, turn over and expose their white bellies -- fooling the fish into thinking they're near the surface. So they swim to the top, and the whales move in for the kill.
 
The massive mammals, who weigh up to 45 tons and can grow to 50 feet long, winter in Hawaii and Mexico's Baja California, and summer in Alaska. One day, we listen to whales communicating underwater using a hydrophone -- and hear a series of clicks, grunts and whistles.
 
Hot springs in Alaska come as a surprise, somehow. But one day we soak in a pool of naturally heated water in the woods at the top of a rushing waterfall at Warm Springs Bay, on Baranof Island.
 
One of Alaska's biggest islands -- over half of Alaska's 1,800 named islands are here on the southeast panhandle -- it's named after Alexander Baranov, the first governor of then-Russian Alaska and the manager of the Russia-America Fur Company after he arrived in 1790.
 
The town of Sitka, founded in 1799 as a trading post on Baranof Island, still retains traces of its heritage as the capital of Russian Alaska, before the U.S. purchase in 1867.
 
The hot pool is just one of about 20 geothermal areas in southeast Alaska. Tiny Tenakee Springs, population 80, is a town of houses on stilts and an old bathhouse fed by hot springs that we visit on another excursion.
 
Folks from Juneau come here to "get away from it all," I hear.
 
Our chef is turning out one gourmet feat after another in the tiny kitchen: We're dining on BBQ salmon and Alaskan rock fish with a macadamia crust and pineapple-mango salsa -- washed down with wines from Oregon, Washington and California.
 
Before dinner, there's wine and delectable hors d'oeuvres; after dinner, single malts like 15-year-old Macallan, Port wine, brandy and chocolates.
 
Our last day is in Petersburg, a small fishing town proud of its Norwegian heritage. A replica of a Viking ship stands in front of a museum about its maritime heritage, and rosemaling -- traditional Norwegian floral patterns -- adorns facades on the main street, as do beautiful murals of the sea and its creatures.
 
A special treat is in store: a lunch of seafood at a private home, where the view of Frederick Sound from floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room is simply stupendous.
 
A Framingham, Mass., family even chose Alaska for their son's Bar Mitzvah spot because he wanted an adventure. So Ellen Paderson, the founder of Bar Mitzvah Vacations in South Easton, planned a trip for Larry and Nancy Vale that also featured sightseeing in Juneau and Whittier, a fishing port 60 miles southeast of Anchorage -- where almost 40 percent of Alaskans live -- and a cruise to Glacier Bay National Park.
 
The Bar Mitzvah was at Juneau's Temple Sukkot Shalom, where many members of the city's 300 Jews attended, eager to welcome the six family members who traveled 2,880 miles for the occasion -- and such big news in Juneau that a story appeared the next day in the local newspaper.
 
For information see: www. americansafaricruises.com and www.travelalaska.com .
 
 

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