Traveling Alaska Takes Guts

Traveling-AlaskaWHERE THE PERIL STRAIT MEETS the Chatham Strait, by the soaring forests of Chichagof and Baranof islands, seven humpback whales milled and spouted. From the foredeck of the M/V Liseron, our jaunty wood-hulled charter boat, we saw them flex their backs, raise their tails and slide down into the icy water. Minutes passed, then the huge creatures burst to the surface together. The Liseron’s captain had slowed the boat to a near idle to accommodate the curiosity of his sixteen passengers. The humpbacks, he said, were feeding cooperatively by herding their prey (herring, most likely) inside a net of bubbles, then rushing up at them from below and scooping them into their enormous maws. My wife Risa and I had observed whales elsewhere over the years, but the sight of bubble-net feeding, as this was called, was new to us, as it was to the other guests on-board.

We were all from Philadelphia, friends of Tatnall and Maysie Starr’s, who had conceived the trip to celebrate Tat’s sixtieth birthday. Some, like Tat, had come principally for the fishing. Others shared Maysie’s interest in the Alaskan rain forest and its wildflowers. By now, a week into our nine-day ramble around Alaska’s Inside Passage, from Juneau to Sitka, we had seen and done enough to please everyone’s fancy. In a landscape framed by some of the highest coastal mountains in the world, we had hiked through ancient forest and muskeg, swum in alpine lakes, fished waters brimming with salmon and trout, viewed glaciers by floatplane, canoed in silent coves at sunset. And in this remnant of American wilderness we had seen whales, seals, otters and sea lions, black bears and grizzlies, hawks, ospreys, bald eagles and innumerable varieties of water birds.

At dawn most days, the Liseron, a former Navy minesweeper refitted for the comfort and safety of up to twenty passengers, would be anchored in sheltered coves somewhere along the region’s 11,000 miles of jagged shoreline. On day three, for example, we awoke in Gambier Bay, hard by the Kootznoowoo Wilderness on Admiralty Island. Rising from wide bunks in smartly fitted private cabins, we dressed and strolled to the stern for coffee as the Liseron pulled anchor and headed south through an opulent seascape of islands and promontories. What a pleasure to see Alaska so close–and how unlike a cruise I’d once taken on a 2,000-passenger ship that steamed by night from Ketchikan to Juneau to Sitka, missing the spectacle along the way.

Soon after breakfast (sausage and French toast today, with other choices available), the Liseron anchored near a pair of islands called the Brothers, and we climbed into skiffs to go ashore. Five of the staff were available to guide us on expeditions away from the Liseron, while two cooks, two stewards and the engineer remained on-board. Our guides could relax a little this morning, for the Brothers had no bears and were too small for guests to get lost on.

Passing by rocks where sea lions sunned, the skiffs delivered us to a beach at the edge of an inviting wood. We walked all morning in the mossy habitat, where the only sound was the distant complaining of the sea lions. Later, after a lunch of Greek salad on the Liseron, most of the group went stream fishing. My wife and I, with Maysie Starr, Phoebe Driscoll and our guide Dana (a firearm on her hip), hiked a bear trail at the edge of Pybus Bay. We saw fresh scat and other evidence of the bears’ presence but had no encounters. At the end of our hike, we met the anglers, standing in water that came up almost to the tops of their chest waders and looking stunned by the size of their salmon catch.

We dined that evening on halibut that our cohort Cheryl Sargent had caught, and then it was into the canoes for a twilight outing. Risa and I paddled to the arm of the bay, where we had walked hours before, and saw four black bears ambling at the water’s edge. For now, with a stream full of salmon so close, perhaps their lives were as bountiful as ours.

And so each day unfolded, following no set schedule but adjusting to whim, weather, tides and fish runs. Yet evening always found us at dinner on the aft deck. We fed with a gusto not so very different from the humpbacks’ and drank from the Liseron’s selection of good West Coast wines. The fare was varied and attractively presented, and once we had dispatched the creme brulee or the peaches a la mode with ginger sauce, some of us went canoeing while others repaired to the saloon or to their bunks with big summer books.

One could wonder how the Liseron turns a profit while providing so many activities and amenities to so few passengers, at a price even Philadelphians will pay. Well, it doesn’t. The Liseron is owned by the Boat Company, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster concern for the land and citizens of southeast Alaska. Started in 1979 by Michael McIntosh, heir to A&P supermarket money, and his wife Winsome, the Boat Company first acquired and restored the Observer, a minesweeper with room for six passenger cabins. Some ten years later, the Liseron was purchased and refitted with ten cabins. Built of wood to thwart magnetic mines, the boats are beautiful and rare.

In the course of our trip, the Liseron’s staff spoke of issues affecting our magnificent surroundings. We were in the Tongass National Forest, they explained, which is the largest national forest in the United States and part of the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world. That might seem an inexhaustible source of timber, yet less than one third of the Tongass is forest. The rest is rock, glacier, bog and treeless coastline. Of the five million acres that can be called “old growth” — an intricate ecosystem 3,000 to 5,000 years in the making–nearly a million acres have been logged.

And we saw the results of that logging. Outside the wilderness areas, we came to swaths of clear-cut land. Some cuts were old, others new, but all left vast scars on the mountains’ green flanks. Michael McIntosh became concerned for the region years ago while working on a fishing boat. It was a time when the Forest Service could grant long-term timber contracts with little regard for the consequences to native populations, wildlife habitats, the fishery and the growing tourist business. Today, thanks to the efforts of small, focused organizations like the McIntosh Foundation and its auxiliary, the Boat Company, southeast Alaska has an effective ombudsman.

Just last year, in response to numerous appeals, the federal government designated 500,000 acres of the Tongass, including forty wild watersheds, off-limits to logging. “But we’re not just tree-huggers” Winsome McIntosh told me recently from the Boat Company’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Like her oldest son, Mark, a corporate attorney, she is a full partner in the work of the organization. “We support all kinds of responsible efforts in the Tongass region–the raptor center in Sitka, for example, which is helping to save eagles, and an independent fishermen’s association that has created new salmon runs. We even favor selective harvesting of timber if it can support locally owned milling businesses. By ourselves, our small family foundation can’t produce major change, but we have been able to leverage our money so that others join in –bigger foundations and, of course, our passengers who are inspired to help out.”

If our group is a fair measure, every trip on the Liseron and Observer creates new allies for the Tongass region. And their numbers will grow substantially this summer when the Boat Company puts a third vessel, the Mist Cove, into service. On the next-to-last day of our journey, we anchored close by the Gulf of Alaska and went ashore on Kruzof Island, which is about the size of Cape Cod, though all but empty of people. We climbed for an hour through mossy forest, skirted a freshwater lake and passed through boggy muskeg and more forest. By now, most of us could recite the names of plants we saw–salmonberry, pond lily, chocolate lily, marsh marigold, deerberry, yarrow–and our birders pointed out red-tailed hawks, ospreys and red-breasted nuthatches. At last we emerged at a vast beach called Sea Lion Cove. A quarter-mile distant, beyond the soft sand littered with kelp and driftwood, waves broke. We had come to the ocean. I felt a certain pleasure at having arrived at this wild, deserted place, at the edge of the continent and at the end of a sped-up century, by rather archaic means–on foot, via a resolutely old-fashioned boat. Strange to say, it felt like progress.

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