TRACY ARM, ALASKA A big black bear was casually perusing a low-tide buffet of barnacles, mussels and snails when we stopped just offshore to watch.
He was clearly less impressed with us than we were with him. At one point during his dining, he turned sideways on his rocky ledge and nonchalantly did something bears apparently don't always do in the woods.
Alaska welcomes you on its terms, not yours.
That was a lesson learned on an 11-day cruise last month through Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage, aboard the Alaskan Dream. And while more than 800,000 people cruise the state's waters each year, ours was a route less traveled: aboard a small ship. Instead of a 750-foot ship carrying 2,000 passengers, we cruised on a 104-foot twin-hulled vessel with 26 fellow travelers.
With a crew of 18, we spent a full day in magnificent Glacier Bay National Park, and other full days in the even more spectacular settings of Tracy Arm and Mystic Fjord. There were unscheduled stops at unnamed rivers and waterfalls, games of tag with porpoises and killer whales, and visits to towns often ignored by the Titanic-size ships that dominate Alaska cruising. Two communities we visited, in fact, had never hosted a cruise ship of any sort. As the ship tied up, the locals took photos of us.
Small-ship cruising in Alaska isn't new. In 1879, fabled naturalist John Muir was one of several tourists who chartered a steamship to explore the region. "We had her all to ourselves," he wrote, "ship and officers at our command to sail and stop where and when we would, and of course everybody felt important."
And while the Alaskan Dream's crew wasn't that compliant, they did make us feel important.
"We want to give our guests the opportunity to experience the geology, the history, the culture, to give them a feel for why we love living here" said Jamey Cagle, senior vice president of Allen Marine Inc., the parent company of Alaskan Dream Cruises. Cruising 'small' gives us the flexibility and creativity to do that."
Those are handy assets to have available in a region as vast and as vastly indifferent to the schedules of humans as Alaska. And opportunities to be both flexible and creative popped up here and there on this first cruise of Alaskan Dream's second year in operation.
When 54-knot winds and soggy skies blew the first two days of the cruise's itinerary off the calendar, for example, Capt. Eric Morrow and crew made for Juneau, and quickly put together tours of the Mendenhall Glacier, the Alaska State Museum, a gold mine and a scenic garden featuring upside-down trees and stories of a recent bear raid on the gift shop's cookie supply.
Rather than miss the first day of the town of Petersburg's Little Norway Festival, cruise directors flopped port calls with the town of Wrangell, despite the $300- per-hour fuel costs incurred in sailing past Petersburg to Wrangell and then back to Petersburg.
"We'd rather get it right than just get it done," said Dave Allen, president and CEO of the company that was started by his parents as a boat-building enterprise in 1967 in Sitka. "We're passionate about that."
While new to cruising, the Allens definitely are not new to Alaska. Family matriarch Betty Allen is a member of the Tlingit (pronounced "klink-kit") people who settled in Southeast Alaska thousands of years ago. Born and raised in Northern California, patriarch Bob moved to Alaska in 1950.
In 1970, the Allens began branching out from building, repairing and renovating ferries and fishing boats to operating day tours out of Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. Their boats would pick up people from the mammoth 2,000-plus passenger cruise liners for up-close looks at wildlife, glaciers and icebergs, and exploration of the deep, narrow passes that vein out from the main channels. In 2010, after purchasing and refitting two small ships from a company that had gone belly-up, Allen found itself in the overnight cruise business.
"It was something that was 10 or 15 years in the making," Dave Allen said. "We had thought about it as the next logical step for a long time, and when the ships (the Alaskan Dream and 143-foot Admiralty Dream) became available, the time seemed right."
The company's first trip last year attracted only five passengers, but cruises were filling up by the end of the season in September, and word was spreading.
Our manifest included visitors from Australia, New Zealand, Texas, New Jersey, New York, Kansas, California, Ohio and Oregon. It was an interesting, amiable and well-behaved entourage. Even the Texans and Australians.
Perhaps most tellingly, four of the passengers were from Juneau.
"This is a chance for us to see parts of our own state that we either haven't seen before or haven't seen in years," said Steve White, a former attorney and salmon fisherman who now captains a whale-watching boat for a competitor to Allen. "And this is the best way to do it."
There are undeniable tradeoffs if you choose a small ship over the mega-cruisers. For one thing, they are smaller. Cabins are compact, but the Alaskan Dream's rooms all had big picture windows. Common areas also are smaller, and less common, than on the big ships. But a spacious observation deck ensured that there was always room to see the scenery. Plus there were little extras: two pairs of binoculars in each room, plush robes, and rain gear and boots for the entire cruise.
Small-ship cruises can be significantly more expensive. But they are often all-inclusive, unlike the big cruise lines that routinely charge an arm, leg and other parts of the anatomy for shore-based tours. On our cruise, we paid nothing extra for any activity, which included a Tlingit cultural show, museum admissions, jet boat rides, and a walking tour through a rain forest to an 1880s Haida clan house and totem pole collection. We also spent a full day at a secluded private bay, where we played on kayaks, ATVs and Zegos, a sort of jet ski crossed with a raft.
Small ships lack Vegas-style singers, magicians, water slides and movie theaters, and I never did find the casino. Instead, each night we heard about the history, geography, politics and people of Alaska, mostly delivered by Brenda Campen, who is recognized as one of the state's leading history and culture experts.
The small ships also lack the big ships' buffet lines, which can stretch through several ZIP codes. But that didn't mean a more limited menu imagination. Chef Briana Musgrove, an L.A.-raised kitchen maestro with a Cajun bent, conjured up entrees (a choice of at least four were offered each evening) such as "confit duck leg, served with rosemary shallot waffle, maple demi, and cranberry spruce tip compote." There were Alaska standards reindeer sausage, king crab legs, salmon and halibut all done superbly. My wife Ceil's vegan proclivity was catered to with items like chickpea croquettes with roasted red pepper hummus and homemade soy chocolate ice cream.
What small ships have in abundance over their mammoth cousins is an ability to get up close and personal to the scenery and its denizens. We bumped gently against ice fields at the feet of glaciers; alternately sped up and slowed down as Dall's porpoises and their harbor porpoise kin surfed the bow and stern wakes, and lingered at eye level near rocky islands where endangered Steller sea lions lolled about as indolently as legislators.
In addition to the rude bear mentioned previously, we spotted a dozen other bruins; watched bald eagles soar overheard; oohed and aahed at giant humpback whales; had a pod of orcas drift close enough that we could hear them breathing; and spied on mountain goats balanced on cliff perches seemingly too small for birds.
Speaking of birds, we learned that tufted puffins irresistibly colorful and clownish congregate not in flocks but in "improbabilities." We learned that from a National Park ranger who boarded our ship at Glacier Bay for the day. He was taking photos at the time, which tells you what kind of scenery we were passing through.
We were even made to feel like responsible tourists. In return for tours of the small community of Thorne Bay and the even smaller village of Kasaan, Alaskan Dream shared part of our fares with the communities to support construction of a new library and restoration of an historic Haida site.
But one of the scenes that will stick with me most from the cruise came not in some secluded bay or rural village, but in the crowded, touristy town of Ketchikan, at the very end of the trip. While waiting at Allen Marine's dockside office for our ride to the airport, I watched out the window as passengers from a giant cruise ship stood in a long line to re-board.
It took 25 minutes before the last of them disappeared from view.
OFF TO ALASKA
Do some Web homework: Several companies offer small-ship cruising in Alaska, each with its own emphases and itineraries. Among them are Alaskan Dream Cruises (www.alaskandreamcruises.com), Lindblad (www.expeditions.com), and Innersea Discoveries (www.innerseadiscoveries.com).
Book early: Small-ship cruises can fill up fast. Early booking also can mean substantial discounts.
Pack casual: One of the delights of small-ship cruising is the informality. Jeans, sweaters and your favorite camping hat will make you presentable for all occasions.
Don't fret about seasickness: Most small cruise ships are built for passenger comfort, and the Inside Passage is generally one of the smoothest cruising areas in the world. If you're uncertain about your sea legs, this is a good trip to test them.
Extend your stay: Alaska is a biiiiig place. As long as you're going, think about adding a land-based tour. We rented a car and spent 10 days around Anchorage and exploring the Kenai Peninsula after our cruise.
Bring money: Alaska is expensive. But its uniqueness makes it worth the price.
Notes from a small Alaska town
Fishing is the heart of Petersburg. Sometimes it seems there are only three types of people among its 3,100 residents: those who fish, those who have fished, and those who plan on fishing. The port, too shallow to make the picturesque village a target for the big cruise ships, supports a fishing industry that ranks among the top 25 in the nation in terms of total catch.
On this overcast morning, the docks are crowded with purse seiners, crabbers, trollers and longliners. On the Frigidland, deckhands use a high pressure hose to divest the deck of grease. Next door, on the Westwind, a fellow wields a grinder to take the edge off a mended rail plate. A hand from the Deer Harbor II is filling five-gallon water jugs at a dockside tap.
"How ya doin?"
"Can't complain. But it's damn cold for May."
Sometimes, the town's heart breaks. Perhaps 200 yards from the docks, the town's Fishermen's Memorial Park perches atop a wooden pier, sharing space with a replica of a Viking ship that advertises the town's strong Norwegian heritage. Dozens of bronze plaques adorn the rails and pedestal, which supports a life-size statue of a rope-tugging fisherman. The plaques bear the names of those who lost their lives at sea: Opsal, Larsen, Husvik, Fugluog. On one, there are three Odegaards, all lost on the same day. The dates of birth suggest a father and two sons.
"We remember ours, lost at sea," reads the plaque.
On Nordic Drive, the town's main street, bald eagles and ravens perch on rails and roofs, strutting and squawking like so many senators. One store window has posted news of all five of the births in town since the start of the year. The toy store lists happy-birthday greetings to all the kids whose big day falls in May. The travel bureau's window has a poster seeking contributions to bronze Bruno. Bruno is the town's iconic wooden statue of a bear with a salmon in his mouth. He needs bronzing, the poster explains, because people keep stealing the fish.
Down the street, people are getting ready for the opening of a three-day festival commemorating Norway's independence from Sweden in 1905. A canopy erected over what apparently serves as a vacant lot the rest of the year gets a critical once-over from one of the workers. "It'll be OK," he opines, "if it doesn't rain too hard."
Norwegian independence isn't the town's only special event. For three days before Christmas, Petersburg celebrates Julebukking, in which merchants offer free food and drink to customers to show their appreciation. It used to be just on Christmas Eve, a Chamber of Commerce representative explains, "but there was just too much food. We couldn't eat it all."
At the People's Rexall Pharmacy, owner Max Warhatch has been handing out free pastrami sandwiches at Julebukking since 1969. It's a popular stop; they hand out close to 900 sandwiches each Christmas Eve.
"If you get in line now, you'll be pretty sure to get one," smiles a pharmacy clerk.
The calendar behind her says it's May 17. It doesn't say what year.