KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Open windows let you sleep with the sea air in your face, air with the tang of salt, the fragrance of fresh snow. Background music is the swish of the ship's wake, an occasional high-pitched cry of a bald eagle or the slap of a humpback whale's flukes.
Can this close connection with the deep-blue waters of Alaska be experienced on a cruise ship?
Yes indeed, especially if it is one of the small Explorer Cruise Lines ships offering passengers a wilderness adventure in the Inside Passage.
In Glacier Bay, naturalist Ken Russell of the National Park Service pointed out two large white mountain goats scampering across the face of the shear rock cliffs 800 feet above us.
A Flexible Pace
"Ninety percent of our visitors come by large cruise ships," he said. "They've got aerobics, enclosed swimming pools and seven meals a day, but probably no captain who'll idle the engines for a goat.
"The big ships draw 30 feet of water and can steam into the deeper bays to see glaciers, but we, with only an eight-foot draft, nudge right up and land our passengers on the ice. Until you see the glacial crevasses and pools close up, you can't believe what an intense blue they are. Take your cameras for those icy sapphire pools."
We stayed on the bow watching the Arctic phenomena; the first to sight a brown bear at water's edge gets a bottle of champagne.
Just when you think of ducking into your cabin for another layer of clothing, a stewardess steps out on deck with mugs of hot chocolate and coffee. For the less hardy, one can see panoramas and close-ups of this silver, green and white world from the water-level windows in the dining room or in the Lookout Lounge.
A slide show about glaciers may be interrupted by the captain's voice on the ship's speaker: "We're reversing our course for killer whales. Bring your binoculars up on deck. Four different pods of Orcas are performing for us."
Males with their tall dorsal fins led youngsters and females in balletic leaps. They seemed to enjoy breaching, blowing and sounding for a rapturous audience as Capt. Peirce followed them quietly for 45 minutes.
The marine shows were the main events, but we also had optional shore excursions every day of the weeklong cruise.
At Sitka, tenders carried passengers from the large anchored cruise ships to waiting buses, but Explorer's passengers felt a bit smug walking down the gangplank from our docked ship.
It's easy to wander over to see the old Russian Orthodox Cathedral with its priceless icons dating from the Renaissance. Some of us hiked the Sitka National Historical Park trails, admiring totem poles and Tlingit Indian artifacts, blissfully independent of shuttle boat schedules. We checked back on board as we wished.
The three-hour river rafting excursion at Haines is half thrill, half nature study. Guide Katie skillfully rowed the inflatable around whirlpools and rocks and through less-than-fearsome white water while she pointed out eagles' nests, deer, arctic terns and schools of young salmon.
"Flightseeing" can mean float planes or helicopters. For a landing on Mendenhall Glacier, four people went up at a time. Otis Davis, 89, was thrilled with the glacier walk.
"Since I was only 4 years old on my last trip to Alaska, I remember only what my mother told me about it," said Otis. "She'd never believe I'm doing this!"
There are shows by Archangel Russian dancers at Sitka and Norwegian dancers in Petersburg and a great salmon bake with entertainment by the Chilkat Indians at Skagway.
View of Habitat
The jewel of Juneau is the Alaska State Museum. After having seen hundreds of eagles from the ship, we got a chance to see their habitat at close range. A circular ramp spiraled a Sitka spruce supporting an eagle's nest.
"Do you know," asked the guide, "how much these nests weigh? The largest ever measured was found in northern Ohio and weighed two tons. They are handed down from generation to generation, and commonly weigh close to one ton."
Even in this narrow panhandle of southeast Alaska the climate varies wildly. Ketchikan averages 168 inches of rain a year while Skagway gets only 28 inches. Rhododendron and giant conifers thrive in the rainy regions, but Skagway blooms like California.
The waterways can be counted on to give us a great show at any season, rain or shine. All summer in Tracy Arm the twin Sawyer glaciers keep the inlet choked with pan ice and icebergs. The ranger said, "It's always glassy in here, with lovely reflections from the surrounding snowcapped mountains. The wind has to be blowing from a very unlikely direction to get into this fiord."
Shutterbugs snapped a black oyster catcher perched on one sky-blue iceberg that was so dramatically sculptured it could be an entry in a winter carnival.
Satiny black harbor seals populated the bay. Each mother with a newborn pup, basking on her own private "bergie bit," slid into the water as we passed and popped her head up like a periscope to observe us.