Dispatch, Alaska: Our adventurous captain

Alaska Dispatch series

Johanna in AlaskaCruise Editor Johanna Jainchill has embarked on a land-cruise tour of Alaska and the Yukon territory. She is filing dispatches detailing her adventures there.

Dispatch 5, Onboard the Spirit of Endeavour -- After almost a week on the Spirit of Endeavour, the sight of whales started making me hungry.

Capt. Michael Fleming, known here as Captain Mike, has a philosophy: Passengers should wake up, go to dinner and go to bed seeing something special.

On this trip, we inevitably ran into a humpback whale -- or seven -- just before dinner. It seems improbable to time such sightings to the exact dinner hour, but after spending 24 years sailing in Southeast Alaska, Captain Mike knows these waters like few people do.

"I truly feel it’s my backyard," said Fleming, an Elvis-looking guy partial to strong coffee and Malbec wine (but not during the six-week stretches when he’s working). "This is my home. I commercial fished here with nets. If you don’t know the waters, you lose your net. I’ve spent my life in these areas."

Fleming, who became captain of a commercial fishing boat in these waters at age 24, now calls Girdwood, Alaska, outside Anchorage, home. But for the summer, the Sprit of Endeavour is his house, and he spends a lot of time showing it off as best he can.

During our day in Tracy Arm, a 25-mile long fjord of 2,500-foot cliffs, Captain Mike pushed the boat as close to the cliffs as possible, allowing us to feel the spray of a glacial waterfall or to touch the sheer fjord walls.

When a Holland America Line ship passed us, the tip of our vessel was just a few feet from a waterfall plummeting down a cliff wall.

"Wonder why that Holland America ship isn't kissing the waterfall," Captain Mike said wryly on the loudspeaker.

Alaska-Tracy ArmCaptain Mike enjoys being able to do what most large cruise ships can't. As we approached the inlets leading to the two glaciers in the fjord, he began moving through huge chunks of ice, pushing them off the hull with resounding clangs. I was one of several people who began thinking Captain Mike might not be playing with a full deck. 

"Other boats won't do it. Big ships can't get in there," he said of the ice-choked inlets near the glaciers. "I enjoy the ice, the sense of exploration, the challenge. It takes a certain level of intensity and concentration to drive through the ice like that."

Besides navigating ice, his main job is timing. It's not only making sure our lunches and dinners are preceded with sightings of bears and whales, but planning the itinerary with enough time to stop and enjoy them.

"It's not exploration if you can't see what we can find," he said. "I run a lot harder than others to make time for those experiences. I get that people spent a lot of money to come here. It might be their dream -- their 50th anniversary, and the wife always dreamed of seeing whales. I understand that. I feel a huge responsibility and obligation to do the best possible job I can for them."

He also knows that the entire week will run more smoothly onboard if we see plenty of bears, whales and eagles.

"If the steak is medium rare and you ordered it rare, you won’t sweat the details if you've had an amazing day," he said.

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