The jigsaw puzzles came out after lunch on the third full day of the voyage aboard Un-Cruise Adventures' Safari Explorer. So did the humpback whale.
The whale captivated us by repeatedly fluttering its enormous pectoral fin above the frigid water, showing its back as it rose and sank, blowing out misty spouts of water.
After nearly a half-hour, it displayed its fluke as it dove deep into the water. That satisfied the expectations of the passengers aboard the Safari Explorer for their 12-day cruise from Seattle to Juneau: Yes, they would see critters. And the ship would stop so everyone could watch and take pictures.
Between viewing animals in the water and on land, alternating kayaking with hikes on shore, motorized raft tours and trying stand-up paddleboarding, there was still time to put together four puzzles, read and then retire to the cabin to watch DVDs from the Explorer's library.
Onboard was an open bar and a choice of wines and Champagne with dinner, preceded by an hour of cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Sink-right-in leather couches and easy chairs were conveniently adjacent to the bar, while the memory-foam mattresses in each cabin help put the "soft" in soft adventure.
Hikers take an uphill trek to a waterfall in the forest near the Dawes Glacier, a stop on the Safari Explorer cruise. Photo Credit: Robert N. Jenkins
But the real draw for most passengers was seeing animals. An Alaska Wildlife Checklist was provided. My list showed: black bears (including a mother with cubs), mink (one carrying a fish in its mouth), otters, orcas, bald eagles, great blue herons and northern flicker woodpeckers were all spotted. When six of us kayaked within a half-mile of Dawes Glacier, arctic terns screeched above us.
Our hours at the glacier, which rises hundreds of feet above the water and is more than a half-mile wide, were typical:
• The Safari Explorer was by itself in the miles-long channel leading to the neon-blue wall of ice.
• Seals in their spotted fur coats rested on small icebergs near us.
• Five mountain goats scampered up a sheer rock wall.
• Waterfalls plunged nearby.
Rain or shine, we had the option to hike. In raincoats, pants and calf-high boots, we climbed up to and above a waterfall. We went beachcombing, and a few folks ascended the 370 steps to duck and scrooch through caves on Prince of Wales Island.
The itinerary included spending several hours with Native Americans in two towns.
First, the ship stopped at Ketchikan, which survives on tourists brought by the big-time cruise ships. (For the sake of comparison, the 145-foot-long, 36-passenger Safari Explorer docked next to the 965-foot Norwegian Pearl, which carries 2,394.)
That morning, Tlingit tribal leader Joe Williams came aboard to speak about his heritage. Williams (missionaries had forced English names on his ancestors and other natives in the 19th century) said his tribe had camped in this area for nearly 10,000 years, drawn by the huge salmon spawn.
The second stop was 55 miles north, at Klawock, site of Alaska's first fish cannery. Leslie Isaacs, the administrator for this city of 770, took the passengers to a totem-pole park overlooking the harbor. These 21 poles are copies of the badly weathered poles from a nearby village, and each notes someone's death.
Isaacs, visibly moved, told of two funerals during which orcas and ravens had made unusual appearances, reinforcing for the mourners that the deceased had been reincarnated as one of those animals.
Such interactive time with the tribal leaders was another example of the difference between small vessels such as the Safari Explorer and mass-market cruises in Alaska. Those ships are too large to pass inside the Inside Passage, where we had spent most of our voyage. For more information, go to www.un-cruise.com.