American Safari provides intimate look at Alaska

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Freelance writer Cynthia Boal Janssens and her husband Chet sailed on the Safari Quest's May 8 inaugural cruise in Alaska from Juneau to Sitka. The ship was renovated during the winter, with the addition of four luxury cabins.

The town of Pelican, Alaska, is way out there. I mean way, way out there. It's located on the far side of Chichagof Island, up the Lisianski Inlet, accessible only by boat or seaplane.

Safari Quest passengers explore Sawyer Glacier in Alaska aboard a Zodiac. Its 147 residents make their living fishing. Or, at least, they used to. These days this little town, built in 1938 to support a large fish cannery, is struggling because last year the processing plant was closed. Residents are seriously concerned about how they are going to earn money, and some are bailing out.

We visitors really weren't supposed to learn this. We were to enjoy strolling down the picturesque stilted boardwalk, tip a few at the local bars, maybe spend a few dollars in the general store and admire a totem pole about to be erected by the village. But in doing those things, we met the local people, talked with them and learned of their plight.

But we also shared their joys. Two students were graduating from high school the next evening, and we were invited to stay and celebrate.

Unfortunately, that wasn't to be, as our minicruise ship was leaving the next morning, but this chance to experience a real fishing village, without tourist trappings, was just one more dimension of an Alaskan cruise experience I'll never forget.

Cruising aboard the Safari Quest, a 120-foot motor yacht which carries 21 passengers, was indeed like being on your own ship. We did all of the things that yachtsman do: "Dinked" around (stopped in little bays), "hung on the hook" (anchored overnight in several of those bays) and took dingy rides to see whales.

From the time we left Juneau until we put in at Sitka seven days later, we never saw another cruise ship (well, we did, but it was an aerial view more on that later). We never encountered any other tour groups. We didn't visit any of the famous Alaskan towns. We were on our own to enjoy Alaska's grandeur.

American Safari Cruises, now in its third season, operates two cruising yachts in Alaska: the Safari Quest and the 105-foot Safari Spirit.

The company books and sells its staterooms just as the big lines do; that is, the cabins can be booked individually. But that is where all similarities cease.

From boarding time until the final step off, passengers are made to feel like the ship is their own. The doors don't lock, the bar is open, the kayaks are free and all day adventures are included.

The crew of nine operate the boat with ease, with everyone trained to handle lines when needed.

And although the itinerary is loosely planned, what goes on each day depends largely on whim and weather. After overnighting on the ship in Juneau, we headed out to explore southeastern Alaska.

Rather than travel the length of the Inside Passage, we spent the week exploring the coves and crannies in the Alexander Archipelago, between the Gulf of Alaska and the mainland.

That first day we visited Tracy Arm, where we had our first of many up-close experiences with a glacier. As we reached the face of the glacier, the ship was anchored and a large, hard-bottomed inflatable dinghy was put over the side.

We donned life jackets, piled in and, led by a naturalist, headed off to the Sawyer Glaciers. The dinghy weaved between the many chunks of floating ice until we could almost touch the glacier's front edge (called the "face"). We scooped up a chunk of the ice, which we chipped for drinks that evening.

These excursions were easily accomplished since our entire group of 17 could easily split into two boatloads. And because this particular week there were two naturalists on board, we always were accompanied by a guide.

That evening, as most of us congregated in the lounge for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, my husband and his brother rigged up fishing poles and began to pursue what would become their favorite nightly activity: jigging for halibut, sole or whatever else grabbed the hooks. (They had the foresight to purchase fishing licenses in Juneau.)

These two also soon established the top deck as their favorite place to spend the day, where if they weren't watching for whales they were catching naps in the lounge chairs.

The next day was spent cruising Stephens Passage and doing lots of wildlife viewing. One of our group thought up the idea of posting a chart in the lounge to document all of our wildlife sightings.

Our first sightings were of brown bears, mountain goats, harbor seals and humpback whales. Bald eagles, orcas, stellar sea lions and porpoises soon dominated the numbers.

Our adventures were many:

We stopped in the Brothers Islands, where we first encountered the Pacific Oyster Catcher, one of the unique birds of the region, and discovered sea urchins in tide pools.

Because it was so early in the year, we were among the first beachcombers, and I snagged a lovely piece of driftwood that I toted all the way home.

We visited the village of Kake on Kupreanof Island, where we were introduced

to the native Alaskan culture of the Tlingits. Ruth Demmert, a local tribal leader, sang songs, gave us a tour and explained the symbolism of the town's totem pole (supposedly the world's tallest made from one piece) and its ritual "potlatch" gatherings.

We poked through a salmon hatchery and also a packing plant.

At Baranof Warm Springs, one of the prettiest little bays we would see, crowned with a misty waterfall, we tied up at the dock next to two sail boats. (The captain later repositioned our boat, so as not to block the waterfall view of one of our neighbor vessels ... what cruise ship would ever do that?)

The plan was to hike up to the springs for a dip. Despite deep snow on the trail to the springs, we decided to be fearless and try to get there anyway.

It was a stalwart dozen of us that slogged our way up the muddy, drifted trail, and we were rewarded with a memorable soaking in the springs. (Memorable, too, was getting dressed and undressed in the rain.) Yes, it did rain all of that day, but strange as it seemed, the rain and fog gave the harbor a mystical look that I'll long remember.

And, as it turned out, that was the only inclement weather we encountered; most of our days were sunny, if a bit chilly. It was exceptional weather for mid-May.

We stopped in for a look at Pybus Point Lodge, a fishing and hunting camp on Admiralty Island, where we were rewarded with views of huge sunflower starfish under the dock in just a couple of feet of crystal-clear water.

We also had lunch at the Bear Track Inn in Gustavus, a majestic log cabin with much nicer digs. It was interesting to get a firsthand look at these lodges that we had read about in sporting magazines.

We visited the tiny towns of Elfin Cove and Pelican, built on boardwalks, where we dreamed of spending a summer in one of the tiny cottages on the edge of nowhere that overlooked the picturesque harbors and catching up on reading.

We kayaked up a small stream into the Marble Grotto. (Kayaking was a favorite activity among the passengers, and nearly everyone participated.)

We shot pool and enjoyed drinks in the Pelican Bar & Grill, and enjoyed watching one of our shipmates, Susan Pearce, who owns a travel agency in San Antonio, tend bar for the evening after losing a bet.

Our final and most spectacular adventure was a flight over Glacier Bay. While other ships might spend an entire day sailing in and out of the bay, we hopped into sturdy little planes and zipped over the mountains and then dipped down to the face of the glaciers.

As we flew out, we passed over the vessel Veendam, carrying about 1,700 passengers. We were very smug about being only 17.

The food on board, prepared by chef Gary Trupiano, was superb. Most memorable was the Dungeness crab feast when we all outdid ourselves and piled high the shells in the middle of our table.

Meals are family style and wines (all quite good) were included. In fact, all liquor was included ... from Bloody Marys for the early morning brave, to nightcaps of Glenlivet or Courvoisier.

Service was all you could ask for. The head steward is be commended for the many little touches that were arranged, such as chocolates on the beds each night. Anything a passenger asked for was provided, if at all possible.

Our captain proved himself an able skipper, from the tricky docking in Pelican to the nifty slide through the two tiny islands during our approach to Sitka.

He deviated from course whenever we spotted whales or other interesting wildlife. He also maneuvered the Quest for what has become its signature feat: He nosed the bow right up into a waterfall, so the water splashed on the front deck.

Because we shared the small ship's space together, our group of 17 quickly became friends.

On the last evening, my husband was asked to carry on a ship's tradition and read Robert Service's poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee." It was a misty-eyed moment as he intoned those phrases that so many of us had heard during the years, but, somehow, in this place they had more meaning ... and the final outcome had more punch.

As we disembarked in Sitka, we found ourselves reluctant to turn over our ship to another group of passengers. In such a short time, it had become our own.

Our expedition leaders became fast friends as well. They had shared with us their love and the lore of Alaska, and we were charged with carrying it forth.

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