A small-ship expedition cruise is perfect for exploring the wilderness of southeastern Alaska. Small ships take you to places that are inaccessible to large ships. For 10 days, I enjoyed a journey on the American Queen Voyages: Ocean Victory.
From cruising narrow passages with stunning cliffs, gazing at cascading waterfalls, and visiting remote glaciers to exploring small, remote villages and learning about the Tlingit history and culture, here are my six favorite experiences exploring the wilderness of southeastern Alaska.
American Queen Voyages hosted my trip. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Saxman is a small historic fishing village located just south of Ketchikan. We anchored at Ward Cove, approximately 8 miles north of Ketchikan, and bussed to Saxman Totem Park. The 5-acre open-air park boasts one of the world’s most extensive collections of totem poles, including 29 authentic hand-carved Tlingit and Haida totem poles. You can explore on your own or take a guided tour. I recommend the guided tour, where many of the stories of the totem poles are explained. Included is a visit to the Carving House. We looked forward to meeting one of the carvers, but as it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, he was thought to have gone fishing.
2. Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness
Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness lived up to its name! The morning we arrived, a thick layer of mist surrounded us as we anchored along the Behm Canal. Luckily, within a few hours, the Sun came out.
Misty Fjord covers 3,600 square miles and is located east of Ketchikan. It is the largest wilderness area in the Tongass National Forest. Historically, the Tinglit people occupied this region, dating back over 10,000 years ago.
The Behm Canal is particularly beautiful, with rock walls towering up to 3,000 feet, many waterfalls, and luscious verdant trees. We spent the day exploring the area in both kayaks and zodiacs. The wildlife we saw included a bear, many sea otters frolicking in the waters, and bald eagles.
The small city of Wrangell, located on Wrangell Island, is accessible only by boat or plane. Situated along the Stikine River, the city claims the title of “Gateway to the Stikine.”
Our first visit was to Chief Shakes Tribal House, a replica of the original Tlingit clan house. Located on Shakes Island in the middle of the Wrangell Harbor, it is easy to reach. We were welcomed by a Tlingit member who shared the history of the tribal house, the significance of the totems, and her native dress.
Just a short walk from downtown Wrangell, Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park is one of Alaska’s hidden gems! The 40 petroglyphs are believed to have been carved by early Stikine Tlingit about 1,000 years ago. There is an accessible boardwalk to the deck overlooking the site. On the deck, several replicas of the petroglyphs are available for guests to make rubbings. Rubbings can be made only on these replicas, not on the originals. Steps lead down to the beach, where one can view the originals. Viewing is best at low tide.
Petersburg, called “Alaska’s Little Norway,” is located on the north end of Mitkof Island, where the Wrangell Narrows meet the Frederick Sound. Described as “the town that fish built,” Petersburg is one of Alaska’s most prosperous fishing communities. Long inhabited by the Tlingit, near the turn of the 20th century, a Norwegian — Peter Buschmann — fell in love with the area partly because it reminded him of Norway and also because of its proximity to LeConte Glacier, which supplies unlimited ice for a cannery.
Many Petersburg residents trace their heritage to the original Norwegian group who followed Buschmann. The Little Norway Festival, held each May, celebrates this heritage. Visit the Sons of Norway Hall and enjoy traditional Norwegian baked goods. Stroll the marina to view the canneries and fishing fleet.
5. Tracy Arm Fjord
Glacier Day had arrived! As we neared the fjord, we noticed chunks of ice in the waters. The closer we got to the fjord, the larger the chunks — some as big as a house. These are known as “bergy bits.” There are two active glaciers in this area. Ice conditions dictate where you can and will go.
We spent the day in the waters off South Sawyer Glacier at Tracy Arm Fjord, located about 50 miles south of Juneau along the Stephens Passage Channel. Our ship, the Ocean Victory, has an ice-strengthened hull perfect for exploring amongst the bergy bits.
Tracy Arm Fjord is a deep-water inlet surrounded by towering cliffs and waters up to 1,000 feet in depth. Interesting to note that because of this depth, the vessel could not anchor and was “underway all the time.” We spent the day enjoying kayak and zodiac journeys around the glacier. A calving event happens when a large chunk of ice breaks off the glacier and becomes an iceberg. Watch for marine life hitching a ride on these huge chunks of ice. Take time also to enjoy watching all the high cascading waterfalls along the journey.
Kake, a small community of 550, is located on Kupreanof Island in the Alexander Archipelago and is the historical home of the Tlingits. More than 70 percent of its residents are of Tlingit heritage. Kake is accessible only by boat or airplane. The community cultural ambassador gave us an overview of the history and stories of her life and culture.
“I never realized how culturally rich Kake was ‘till I left!” she stated. She emphasized the importance of the decoration on the back of their garments as well. “It tells who we are,” she said.
We were then invited to the community hall, where we enjoyed singing and dancing. Some of the residents had tables of arts, crafts, and clothing. We then hiked or rode up the hill to see the Kake Totem Pole, at 132 feet tall, the largest totem pole made from a single tree.
Once the salmon run begins — often mid-July — the local roads and surrounding areas are filled with bears looking for their next meal. From late July to early August, you can catch the Dog Salmon Festival. During the mid-summer months, Kake boasts Alaska’s largest concentration of humpback whales.
More On The Small Ship: Ocean Victory
My cruise was the Vancouver to Sitka Expedition on board the Ocean Victory with American Queen Voyages. The capacity of the small ship is 186 passengers and 100 crew members. There are 93 staterooms and suites, most with private balconies.
Ocean Victory has six decks. Deck 8 has a spacious observation lounge with panoramic windows. Deck 5 is where the reception desk, main dining room, library, lounge, and lecture theater are located. Deck 7 has a gym, outdoor seating area, and a hot tub. Deck 4 has the Expedition Deck — a huge mud room with life jackets and two overwater viewing platforms.
Activities for exploring include guided zodiac tours and kayaking. Each zodiac has a naturalist or marine biologist from California Polytechnic State University. In addition, these naturalists and marine biologists offer lectures and “Hands-On Science Demonstrations.”
Next time you are considering an Alaska cruise, consider an expedition cruise. An expedition cruise on a small ship takes you to remote destinations along southeastern Alaska and gives you a deeper understanding of the state.