OFF PRINCESS ROYAL ISLAND, Alaska — The jigsaw puzzle came out after lunch on the third full day of the voyage. So did the humpback whale.
Captivating us, the whale repeatedly fluttered an enormous pectoral fin above the frigid water, showed its back as it rose and sank, and blew misty spouts of water.
After nearly a half hour, it displayed its fluke (tail) as it dove deep.
That stopped the oohs and ahhs from the passengers aboard the Safari Explorer, their expectations reinforced for the 12-day cruise on UnCruise Adventures from Seattle to Juneau.
Yes, they would see critters. And yes, Capt. Mike Bennett would stop the ship so everyone could watch, and photograph, them.
This trip would be a true soft adventure. Between viewing animals in the water and on land, between alternating kayaking with hikes ashore, between motorized raft tours and trying stand-up paddleboarding, there still was time to piece together four puzzles, read books and retire to the cabins to watch DVDs from the Explorer’s library.
Nor was the soft theme of the trip limited to the memory-foam mattresses in each cabin. The crew of 15 included a chef and a pastry chef, an open bar, red, white or your choice of wines and even champagne with dinner, a cocktail-and-hors d’oeuvre hour. Sink-right-in leather couches and easy chairs are conveniently adjacent to the bar.
Encounters with black bears, mink & otters
But beyond the relaxed luxury, the real draw for most passengers is seeing wildlife firsthand, not just on the videos that loop on the in-cabin TVs. An “Alaska Wildlife Checklist’’ was thoughtfully provided for passengers. My list shows:
Black bears (but no extra credit for mothers with cubs, grazing on the shoreline), mink (no extra credit for the one carrying a fish in its mouth), otters (no extra credit for hearing a pup squeak from its perch on its mother’s chest, nor for seeing a couple of males trying to create more pups with a female), orcas (no extra credit for a family of three), Dall’s porpoise (easily swimming faster than the ship’s 10 knots), Steller sea lions and harbor seals.
There also were lion’s mane jellyfish and a colorful if gross-looking sea star.
I saw more bald eagles than I can remember, great blue herons and northern flicker woodpeckers. While six of us kayaked in front of Dawes Glacier, arctic terns zipped and screeched just above us.
Our hours at the glacier — which rises hundreds of feet above the water and is more than a half-mile wide — were typical of the 12-day trip. The Safari Explorer was by itself in the miles-long channel leading to the neon-blue wall of ice.
Horizon to horizon, Alaska’s natural wonders seemed to belong to us.
The seals in their spotted fur coats rested on small icebergs for us.
The five mountain goats scampered up a sheer rock wall for us.
The waterfalls plunged for us.
Even the massive chunks of the glacier that fell, called calving, seemed to thunder down just for us to see.
Hikes in Misty Fjords & Prince of Wales Island
Rain or sun, we also hiked. In rain jackets, pants, and calf-high boots, we climbed up to and above a waterfall. We navigated a treacherous boardwalk above the soaked, spongy muskeg in Misty Fjords National Monument (a missing board in a submerged section tumbled one walker into a shallow pool).
We took easy walks — beachcombing, mainly — and hard ones, a few folks ascending the 370 steps to duck and scrooch through caves on Prince of Wales Island.
We also came upon scat (feces) of both bears and wolves, though none of the creatures. Typical of the Explorer’s daily educational lessons, before we stepped into the rain forest for the first time, expedition guide Flora Drury used a slideshow to differentiate between black bears and the larger, more aggressive brown bears — grizzlies.
Passenger makeup & itinerary
After adding passengers six days into the trip, we numbered 22: 18 Americans, two Brits, two Aussies, Nearly everyone was retired, well to do, educated. They had worked as engineers, teachers, corporate financial officers, and in the federal government.
To satisfy their curiosity beyond wildlife, the itinerary included several hours with native Americans in two towns.
First the ship stopped at Ketchikan, which survives on tourists brought by large cruise ships. Five called on Ketchikan this day. (For the sake of comparison, the 145-foot-long, 36-passenger Safari Explorer docked next to the 965-foot Norwegian Pearl, which carries 2,394.)
That morning, Tlingit tribal leader Joe Williams came aboard to speak of his heritage. Williams — Christian missionaries had forced English names on the natives in the 19th century — said his tribe, pronounced klink-git, had camped in this area for perhaps 10,000 years, drawn by the huge salmon spawn.
Indeed, he said Ketchikan was an anglicized version of the Tlingit word for the noise of eagles’ wings as they hunted and flew away with salmon in their talons. There is now a tribal fish hatchery and eagle center on that same creek.
Discussing native culture, Williams said that once a child reaches the age of 2, its upbringing becomes the responsibility of the brother or sister of its parents. From that time, the biological parents become aunt and uncle.
Locals add a dimension of authenticity
The second scheduled stop was 55 miles north, at Klawock (kluh-WOK), site of Alaska’s first fish cannery. Leslie Isaacs, administrator for the city of 770, brought two teenagers onboard as well as a man in his early 20s. These three, Isaacs explained, were part of an intern program created to inculcate tribal heritage in new generations.
Isaacs took the passengers to a totem pole park overlooking the harbor. These 21 poles are copies of badly weathered poles from a nearby village. But all of these “mortuary’’ poles note someone’s death, whereas most of those that Joe Williams had shown us commemorated a life.
Alaskan natives belong to clans identifying with specific animals. Standing amid the mortuary poles and visibly moved, Isaacs told of two funerals during which orcas and ravens had made unusual appearances — thus reinforcing for the mourners that the deceased had been reincarnated as one of those animals.
One of the teens didn’t want to be called an Indian “because I’m not from India,’’ while the 20-something disclosed that his cultural internship had brought him away from alcoholism. Such interactive time with tribal leaders was another example of the difference between small vessels such as Safari Explorer and mass-market cruises in Alaska.
Those ships are too large to pass inside the touted Inside Passage, where we had spent most of our 12 days. Thus, the big ships can’t provide passengers water-level views of seals on small icebergs, of orcas just a few yards away, of porpoises racing alongside.
When the Safari Explorer ended its cruise in Juneau, the crew offloaded passengers’ luggage. The passengers, meanwhile, carried memories of kayaking to within a quarter-mile of a glacier as it calved, stepping around bear scat in a forest, getting misted by a waterfall in an impossibly green forest.
This particular soft adventure had ended.
If you go
Safari Explorer is part of the small-vessel fleet of UnCruise Adventures, cruising in Alaska, Hawaii, Pacific Northwest rivers, the Sea of Cortes, with plans to visit the Galapagos. The seven ships carry a maximum of 22 to 86 passengers.
Explorer is one of the luxury vessels. It has adequately large cabins containing hair dryers, safes, flat-screen TVs, DVD players, binoculars, water bottles and Jacuzzi tubs in six of the 18 cabins. Included in the fare are imaginative menus, daily yoga classes, a free massage, a large hot tub, three exercise machines, all off-ship experiences (and rain gear) and beverages.
My 12-day voyage, "Famed Passages of Discovery," can be broken into six-day segments. My cabin (lowest of six categories) on this trip was $8,100 per person. The same itinerary with less luxury on three other ships begins at $3,000.Updated from an earlier version.