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The Cool of the Bay

From a small ship, getting up close to glaciers, fiords and the wonders of the wilderness along the Inside Passage.


GLACIER BAY, Alaska — Here's a riddle: Why did more than three-quarters of the 448,861 people who visited this breathtaking national treasure last year never set foot on dry land?

The answer: They were seeing the wonders of southeast Alaska, including Glacier Bay, from the decks of huge cruise ships.

But to get kissing close to the scenery and to feel the chill breeze off a glacier, you need to cruise on a small ship equipped with kayaks. This is especially true in 3.2-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park, a fragile wilderness that 19th century naturalist John Muir considered the crown jewel of the Inside Passage. Because of concerns that mega-ships may disturb the wildlife, only two at most are allowed in the bay each day. Even so, most are too big and ungainly to enter Reid Inlet on the West Arm (headed by one of the glaciers that seems to be advancing), moor in glassy Beartrack Cove or get close enough to smell the sea lion colony on South Marble Island. Last June, on a six-day cruise aboard the 34-passenger Wilderness Explorer, I did all that as well as hike into the trackless back country and kayak every day.

For those who hate to sit still and can do without fancy staterooms and midnight buffets, cruising on a small ship answers the bigger riddle of how to get as close as possible to the flora, fauna, fiords and rivers of ice of southeast Alaska. Cruise West, American Safari Cruises and Lindblad Expeditions offer such small-ship excursions. But I chose Alaska's Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises, part of Goldbelt Inc., a 20-year-old company owned by Native Americans, because it seemed to offer the least expensive, most active option.

The company has four small ships that cruise the Inside Passage and provide differing amounts of outdoor activity (chiefly kayaking): the deluxe, 49-passenger Executive Explorer, offering traditional, laid-back cruises with port calls; the 96-passenger Wilderness Discoverer, with some port calls and some active wilderness adventures; the 72-passenger Wilderness Adventurer, devoted to scenery, not ports, with daily kayaking excursions of one to three hours; and the Wilderness Explorer, affectionately known as "the Wex," which serves as a cruising base camp, launching daily five-to seven-hour kayaking trips, with stops on shore for hiking, wildlife viewing and picnic lunches.

The cruise I took on the Wex started with a flight from Juneau to Gustavus, the settlement closest to Glacier Bay, followed by three days on the ship cruising in the park, a day kayaking with humpback whales in Icy Strait just to the south and another day cruising back to Juneau.

Because of the way the company has designed its cruises, offering various amounts of activity depending on passengers' interests, you're likely to end up in a self-selected, copacetic group. Fellow passengers commented to me several times about how much they had in common with one another and how well everyone got along. Most were in their 30s, 40s and 50s, though we had two older couples, including Ed Menning, a retired national park superintendent, and his wife, Jean, who were a thing of beauty as a paddling team.

The 12-person crew was uniformly youthful, including baby-faced Capt. Joel Trainer; cruise director Gina Moreno, who works as a snowboarding instructor at Mt. Hood during the winter; and rangy, curly-headed Mathias Perle, our shipboard naturalist. They were energetic and enthusiastic, but not as knowledgeable as big cruise ship lecturers and park rangers. At night after chores, some of them hit the books to study up on coastal Alaska, and on the last night, when they wore their dress uniforms, the dining room looked like the scene of a high school graduation party.

They made the cruise quirky, like a seafaring version of "A Prairie Home Companion." For instance, while kayaking back to the boat, Matt Brown, my group's guide, taught me how to steer close to the galley and bark like a seal to get the cook to throw me a chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven (a practice everyone in my paddling group took up, scoring different kinds of homemade cookies each afternoon). Funny Mathias took a dunking one day while demonstrating how to roll a kayak (a maneuver for advanced paddlers that we never needed), and read us, appropriately enough at cocktail hour, Robert W. Service's ridiculous, lugubrious poem 'The Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail," about a group of wily Alaskan prospectors.

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