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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.