When I was asked to experience a Wilderness Cruise in Southeast Alaska on a boat that holds 32 people in frigid waters in the middle of nowhere, I realized I was 70 years old and just went back to sleep.
When I mentioned this trip to my two daughters, in unison, both shouted out, ‘’HOW COOL.” My response, ‘cool for you,’ as you are young and in good shape and aren’t afraid to be eaten by bears and sea lions. I reiterated to them that going to Florida in the winter was for me to get AWAY from the snow and cold and bask in the beautiful light we call the sun. Who knew I could find that in ALASKA!
Home away from home for 9 glorious days and nights – Photo: Gayle Harper Photography
I remembered that Alaska was on my Bucket List. After experiencing this trip, NOW, I understand why it’s on the bucket list of so many others. So, this cool grandma from New York is on her way.
A Mosiac Sky – Once in a lifetime – Photo: Gayle Harper Photography
Friends who have been to Alaska made sure to tell me to just ‘look out the window’ as we take the trip from Seattle to Juneau by plane. This is where I experienced once-in-a-lifetime visuals. It so difficult to explain how incredibly breathtaking the mountains, snow, fog, rain, trees, and all that God has created when it is right in front of you. And, we hadn’t even landed yet.
Alaska waterfall – we all eventually had a glass of its sparkling water – Photo: Ellen Eichelbaum
When we landed, Captain “Jeff” (Behrens) as everyone calls him and Rob (who later turned out to be my bear protector), picked us all up at the airport to take us to The ISLAND SPIRIT. The rain was wet and cold but I was prepared. Thank you, Merino Wool, and waterproof jackets, jeans, good gloves and a hat.
Here I was. Certainly not in Florida but in one, of THE most beautiful places I had ever been.
Outside the boat’s window – no words – Photo: Gayle Harper Photography
Thus, the beginning of one of the best vacations (and explorations) of my life.
The ISLAND SPIRIT is not a Princess Cruise. And that is the best part of this experience. If you’re a fan of being pushed and shoved on to and off of a big ship while you have to wait in line for food, this is not what you will experience on The ISLAND SPIRIT. It is your home away from home and every one of the crew of ten will always be there for you. And, during that time, you will have the time of your life.
Photo: Ellen Eichelbaum
Just about when we were to board, our esteemed Captain “Jeff” who loves his bear slippers, decides that the weather is too rough so he will park his boat in a beautiful alcove in Juneau where none of the big ships can go. Here we all sleep for the evening in the calm waters of Juneau on a boat that is deemed ‘the greenest boat in Alaska’ having no motors running at night – the boat shuts down and runs on batteries alone. All you hear is…. nothing but the sounds of nature. This New York girl usually can’t sleep unless there are police cars, ambulances, cars, and assorted loud noises from all over New York City, 24/7. Now, silence, and what a treat. It took a few moments for me to ‘listen to water lapping at the shore’ and a bald eagle fly by, but it was the best meditation for me.
The sun rises at 4:08 a.m. And to be up for that sunrise is worth every minute you might lose of sleep. My husband, who was warmly invited on this trip with me, took his fresh cup of coffee, sat on the top deck and just took in the beauty that is Alaska. I’ve rarely seen him this relaxed.
Cozy dining on The Island Spirit – Great food, Great People – Photo: Island Spirit
The fabulous crew of The ISLAND SPIRIT makes certain no one is ever hungry; even at 4 a.m. There is a buffet of coffees, teas, hot chocolate, etc., as well as an array of cereals, fruits and special morning biscuits, donuts, and wonderful home-baked goodies the chef decides he wants to bake. In case you’re still hungry, scheduled breakfast is around 8. The intimate dining room is surrounded by windows and views of everything around you, so while you are consuming yet another meal, you will be consuming the breathtaking atmosphere, as well.
Prior to the cruise, I filled out paperwork with my food allergies. Not much, just broccoli and crab meat. But ‘Captain Jeff’s team’ made sure those foods were not on any plate I was served.
Orcas – Photo: Rob Ekno
Captain Jeff Behrens
Captain Jeff Behrens has owned and operated USCG licensed vessels for over 25 years. He has owned and operated Fantasy Cruises since 1990, making it one of the longest continuous small ship operations in North America. Captain Jeff’s navigation experience has included transiting the Panama Canal.
I knew somewhere on those Princess cruises, people were jealous that we could just eat in an intimate group setting with no hassle, be served by professionals and then possibly wrap a blanket around us and fall asleep in front of one of the many scenic windows on The ISLAND SPIRIT, which many of us did.
Nature has left us some wonder in ice – Photo: Ellen Eichelbaum
I do want to make note that my fear of getting nauseous and worse was on my mind the entire pre-trip. I purchased everything from Bonine, ginger pills, Xanax, ear patches AND wrist patches. Even the TSA agents looked at my stash of anti-nausea meds. I was prepared. Surely, I would have one challenging session. Yet, they all remained in my bag, except for day one, when I took it all ‘just in case.’
Bear Hike – I may be last but I’m THERE! Photo: Rob Ekno
Our Captain can change course on a dime, which he did, day one. Rough waters weren’t in his book. He knew when we first got on the boat the weather would be challenging; so, he forged ahead and changed the itinerary, placing the last day with the first day so we can remain in calm waters while the big ships were ‘rollin’ on the river.’ Day one, that’s when I knew I was going to be OK.
The ISLAND SPIRIT is equipped with numerous kayaks so anyone who wants to paddle into the waters and just sit and breathe in the clean air, can always take a kayak. It is easy for an older person to get in and out of the kayak as there are assistance bars to hold on to as you descend into, and get out of, the boat. If you don’t want to go out on the kayak yourself, one of the crew will be happy to go with you.
Photo: Ellen Eichelbaum
There is a DIB (an inflatable boat, which holds about 12 people), manned by the experienced crew, that can accommodate your needs and take you where you would like to go, or more importantly, take us to see big brown bears playing on the shore, bald eagles perched on a tree and visit the ‘home’ of the beautiful sea lions. This is up close and personal and unless you are there, it’s truly hard to imagine. But our boys took us there. We saw humpback whales and other water mammals that you can only see in pictures.
Mating season – Photo: Gayle Harper Photography
While the boat is cruising on the still waters, our intimate group of strangers, who are now are friends, are relaxing, taking it all in and awaiting our destination. We are soon visiting Ford’s Terror.
Ford’s Terror is named after the naval crew member who, in 1889, rowed a dinghy into the narrow entrance of the fjord at slack tide. The tide began to rise, forcing its way through the bottleneck entrance into the fjord, and Ford was trapped in the turbulent currents by the most beautiful glaciers. The colors of these glaciers were a gorgeous blue and we were told that, if you put the ice in a sink, it can take 40 days to defrost. We were all mesmerized by the sights and sounds of Endicott Arm and the magnificent Dawes Creek.
Our courageous group of hikers – Photo: Rob Ekno
Once having exited Ford’s Terror, Captain Jeff steered the bow into the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen. As our leader in fun, Rob, bent over to catch the water directly from the fall itself and we had a chance to drink REAL spring water. It was what water should taste like. Our crew member Josh poured a pitcher of water over Rob’s head. It was a great pic and a great moment.
We took many DIB rides up close and personal, including spotting big black bear who decided to give us an eye-to-eye stare. Those bears are beautiful but it was as if they knew us because they kept their distance as did we.
On our journey to Red Bluff Bay our esteemed Captain, once again, pointed out a sea otter.
Right around dessert time, we came upon a pod of three Orcas. The sun was in perfect position for a viewing. Who would ever think hanging out with Killer Whales was a pastime of mine?
Of course, we spent most of one day on foot in Juneau, taking in the city sights, residents, tourists, shops, and the museum, which cannot be missed. We learned much about the history of Alaska and the original artwork and crafts were on display in the most beautiful venue.
Juneau’s $149 million dollar Museum – one of the most famous in the world. LOVED IT!! Photo: Ellen Eichelbaum
For about an hour and a half, we had a group of Dall’s Porpoises that traveled under and alongside of us. Then we spotted a few humpback whales, one of which decided to breach in front of the bow of the boat. In Steamboat Cove, Captain Jeff (always on the lookout for any water action) spotted a female moose on shore as we all raced to the boat’s many windows to experience this sight.
Chefs Robert & Joe, once again, cooked us a great breakfast with homemade omelets, and all the fixings you could ever ask for. They love their special creations, like blueberry scones. I never saw food disappear so quickly.
I knew, at some point, I would be going on a ‘challenging walk through bear country.’ It was a highlight of the trip. This is wilderness and I was going to go even if it meant scaring myself to death. Eight of us, all brave souls, took our courage, and, along with our two fearless leaders, Rob and Rob (both armed with guns. Just in ‘case,’) and we headed out on the hike. I have to say to our readers, even if you do it once in your life, just DO it.
Suspension Bridge on our BEAR WALK. Photo: Rob Ekno
Walking over tree stumps and freshly placed bear poop of all various colors and sizes may not be the walk of your dreams, but once you become of part of the Captain Jeff’s team, you feel safe and exhilarated.
Armed and ready – our courageous guides and protectors Rob & Rob – Photo: Ellen Eichelbaum
We visited dens where the bears live and protect themselves from ‘us.’ Fortunately, they were empty. We held hands as we crossed the suspended bridge and the sights, smells of the air, the beauty of the trees and sky and the small raindrops falling upon us, was something to behold. By now, just a few days into our trip, we were friends, and although we lived in different parts of the country and everyone made fun of my New Yauk accent, we bonded. Where else could you find a 73-year old man from New York playing Dominoes at 4 in the morning in the wilderness of Southeast Alaska? That was my husband.
We always docked in a quiet place every evening. It was so visually stimulating it was hard to sleep. Since the ISLAND SPIRIT runs completely on batteries when it docks at night, the sleep you get will be a real treat.
Early in the a.m., the boat began its journey to the next day’s event with smooth-as-silk waters the entire way.
Sea Lions enjoying their home on the mountain – Photo: Gayle Harper Photography
On to Petersburg, an island community that continues to make a living from the sea. There are three beautiful harbors and we docked to have the opportunity to visit the museum and learn more about the history of this thriving fishing town with a strong Norwegian heritage. Residents are hardworking and friendly and I felt as if I was living out of a storybook. The corner ‘drug store’ had some necessities I needed and I was thrown back in time with the architecture of the town’s buildings.
There is so much more, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but, when you decide to book your trip (hurry cause the time is short as the winter will eventually fall upon Alaska). You will experience your own once-in-a-lifetime trip.
THERE’S MORE! The commitment ceremony of Delores and Lewis, a couple in their 80’s who ‘we gently convinced’ to do their ceremony on Jeff’s boat. And they did it in style with the help of Captain Jeff’s fabulous crew and chefs. You will read about it in my follow-up article in Life’s Journey section. Blown away is the only words I have as this wonderful couple read their vows right as the sun was moving over the mountains and water as Josh, an ordained Minister, read the most beautiful words. We cried and will all remember this forever. (More pictures of this event in the Life’s Journey Section)
Commitment ceremony Lewis & Delores – (see Life’s Journey Section) – Photo Credit: Gayle Harper
For more information and specific trips that The ISLAND SPIRIT makes during the next four months, run, don’t walk, to: smallalaskaship.com – Read about the many different itineraries Captain Jeff and his mate (in real life and on the ship, Catherine), has to offer. There WILL be one for you!
To say the crew was FABULOUS is a true understatement. There is nothing they wouldn’t do for you at any time of day or night – always with a smile and their commitment to you the entire time.
The FABULOUS crew
More information at small alaska ship
Beautiful and amazing photos! Looked like you had a great time.