The catamaran pauses in the blue waters of Alaska's Glacier Bay. From its upper deck, we look out at a narrow beach hemmed in by spruce forest.
A solitary wolf appears, dapper, furtive. He trots across the pebbled beach, then catches us staring. In a heartbeat, he turns and vanishes into his forest.
"I saw him!" a woman shouts from the catamaran deck.
"Now," her husband tells her, "you can cross 'wolf' off your checklist."
There are vacation spots that offer some of Southeast Alaska's best attributes: mountains, rivers, scenery. But no other place promises such easy and overwhelming immersion in the wild world. Within a hundred miles of Juneau is one of North America's largest concentrations of brown bears and bald eagles. Here, too, are moose, glaciers, and adventure. Even if you stay only 10 days, this is the biggest summer vacation you can imagine.
World of ice
Alaskans call it simply Southeast, the tail of territory that extends more than 500 miles south from the main bulk of the state. Look at it on a map and you get lost in a tangle of islands and inlets, each worthy of weeks' exploration. Every summer nearly a million vacationers explore the region on board big cruise ships like those operated by Holland America Line and Carnival, and on smaller ships like those run by CruiseWest. Those are good options. But for my trip, I wanted to spend more time on land than I did on water, and I wanted maximum flexibility.
So I devised my own compact route, starting and ending in Juneau, that showed off Southeast's most spectacular wild experiences: Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve for marine mammals and really big ice; Haines for river rafting with bald eagles; Admiralty Island for Alaska coastal brown bears. I traveled between some destinations on the small planes that are the Alaskan version of the taxi. For others, I took the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System ― they're stylish, comfortable, and give you the same views of Alaska land and sea that cruise lines do.
My first stop is Glacier Bay. The park, a 25-minute flight west of Juneau, is 3.3 million acres of geographical superlatives. Mountains rise 15,000 feet straight from the sea, propelled by some of the largest earthquakes ever recorded and sculpted by the tongues of ice that give Glacier Bay its name.
"A picture of icy wilderness unspeakably pure and sublime," said John Muir, the first person to bring this corner of Alaska to public attention. Glacier Bay is proof that time and planet don't stand still. It's the product of rapid glacial retreat: What was a solid mass of ice in the late 1700s was, by the time Muir arrived in 1879, a 48-mile-long bay. Today it stretches nearly 70 miles, its shores reclaimed by forests and the animals that live in them.
Our catamaran sails up the bay. Like a college dorm, a tour boat is a closed environment where the quirks of a hundred or so strangers reveal themselves quickly. The woman with her checklist of wild animals. The boy who won't let his brother use the binoculars. And the woman in a white scarf who is utterly unhinged by each nugget of natural history that Amanda the park ranger shares with us.
"A full-grown male Steller sea lion can weigh 1,200 pounds," says Amanda, as we watch a gaggle of young males ― "frat boys," Amanda calls them ― lolling on North Marble Island. Scarf woman's face creases with happy surprise.
"Each sea lion eats up to 100 pounds of fish per day." Now scarf woman lifts her hands in amazement. How can anything eat so much? The rest of us smile. Then we hear a call from the stern. We rush to see a humpback whale, its black back arching above blue water, spouting spray into the Alaska morning. The woman in the scarf, you understand now, has the right idea: At Glacier Bay, you're foolish not to be astounded.
Grand Pacific Glacier sits at the head of the bay, but despite its name and impressive stats ― it's 2 miles wide ― it has the unkempt look of a construction site. To the left of Grand Pacific, though, is Margerie Glacier, a beauty, glistening turquoise in the sunlight.
You wouldn't think you could watch a big block of ice for long, but you can. The glacial blue light is hypnotic. The ice cracks ― the sound of a forest toppling. A crag the size of a church spire plummets into the bay, splashing up a cold wave that draws squawking seagulls to dive into the churning water.
There's an explanation for the gulls' behavior, Amanda says. The falling ice stirs the bay waters, bringing nutrients to the surface that the gulls dive to devour. But the gulls' aerial dance seems less hunger-driven than ceremonial. There are natural places that lull you into a sense of peace. Glacier Bay is not one of them. The boom of cracking ice, the chill wind rising from water to mountains ― experiencing these, you don't feel peaceful so much as humbled, and privileged. You are small and the mountains and ocean and ice are so big. But here you are with the squawking gulls, watching a world being born.
Next: World of eagles
World of eagles
There are many good stories in Southeast Alaska, but my favorite is the story of hermit Jim Huscroft, who in the early 1900s lived on Cenotaph Island off what is now Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Once a year Huscroft made the boat trip to Juneau, where the local Elks Club saved him the past year's worth of newspapers. Then he returned to his island to read each paper, one per day, precisely one year late.
That sense of being buffered from the outside world still prevails in Southeast. The weather contributes. Alaska is a young land and has young weather. Specifically, teenage weather: moody, extreme ― weather that rolls its eyes at you and makes you want to confiscate its car keys. The day dawns drizzly and sullen, flights get canceled, hikes postponed. The next morning, the sun blazes, and sky and water shine a fierce and brilliant blue.
When I get to Haines, a ferry ride north from Juneau, it is the first kind of day. The sky is tarnished silver, the mountains wrapped in fog. It's a testimonial to Haines's appeal that I still fall in love with it.
"It's so wild and beautiful that all I can do is walk outside my house and stare," writes the bard of Haines, Heather Lende, in If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. Set on the Lynn Canal with the Chilkat Mountains behind it, Haines has the heart-stopping geography you come to expect in Southeast, and an architectural charm that is less common. That's mainly due to Fort William H. Seward, an early 1900s U.S. Army base whose creamy white buildings group around a parade ground, as neat as the crease on an officer's dress uniform.
Good things to do in Haines include staying at the Hotel Hälsingland, once Fort Seward's officers' quarters and now a rambling, comfortable hotel with a superb restaurant: The seared halibut is not to be missed, and the wine list is exemplary. You can walk across the Parade Ground and admire the totem poles at Alaska Indian Arts and the handcrafted jewelry Madeleine and Fred Shields (he doubles as Haines's mayor) sell at Wild Iris.
Still, wildlife rules. The salmon-rich waters of the Chilkat River draw enormous concentrations of bald eagles. Their population peaks in winter, but a summer raft trip down the Chilkat will show you more eagles than you've seen in your life.
To encounter more Alaska wildlife closer up, head 28 miles north of Haines to Steve Kroschel's wildlife center. Kroschel got his professional start as wolf wrangler for the film Never Cry Wolf, then ventured into wildlife photography. His specialty these days is standing in front of avalanches and filming them. His associate, Mario Benassi, films highly venomous snakes (such as cobras and fer-de-lances) for nature documentaries.
Avalanches, deadly snakes: You sense a certain daredevil spirit here. But once Kroschel and Benassi introduce you to their Alaskan menagerie ― all injured or orphaned wild animals that Kroschel has rescued ― you're too entertained to be alarmed. "None of Santa's reindeer could be male," Kroschel announces as we meet his caribou. "That's because bull caribou" ? our name for reindeer ? "drop their antlers right before Christmas." Other things you learn: Baby porcupines are very cute, lynx have long legs for hunting in deep snow, and baby moose like bananas ― or at least the moose I feed a banana does.
All of Kroschel's animals are impressive. But I'm drawn mostly to the wolves. There are three the day I visit, cousins perhaps of the wolf glimpsed at Glacier Bay. Roaming in their fenced enclosure a few feet away from me, they are even more amazing: handsome, intelligent, seemingly friendly. You want one for a pet, until Kroschel reminds you, "Watch your hands." Wolves, he says, are like Alaska weather: "Their mood changes day to day."
Next: World of bears
World of bears
The floatplane lifts off from the Gastineau Channel and flies south over Juneau. I look through its window, down at the world I'm convinced I won't see again. Good-bye, little cars. Good-bye, little houses. Good-bye, little Fred Meyer discount center.
It's near the end of my trip and I am doing something I have always wanted to do but am now very worried about: seeing, close-up, in the wild, Ursus arctos, the Alaska coastal brown bear ― the same species as the inland brown bear, more commonly called the grizzly. I'm taking a 30-minute flight from Juneau to Admiralty Island, which is famous for having brown bears the way Manhattan Island has people.
Admiralty's bear-watching visitors are steered toward the Pack Creek viewing station, on the north end of the island. "We have a lot of rules," says the ranger standing on the beach where the floatplane drops me off. "They're all designed to prevent stressing out the bears."
What, I think, about stressing out the visitors?
Among the rules: Put all food in a bear-resistant box. Do not wander from bear-viewing areas. If you encounter a bear on the way to the bear-viewing area, let the bear pass. Finally, the ranger tells me, if a bear charges you, do not futilely attempt to outrun it. Instead, stand your ground, stand tall, wave your arms, and shout, "Whoa, Bear!"
At this point, as I stand holding my arm out in a manner reminiscent of Diana Ross and the Supremes singing "Stop! In the Name of Love," I realize there is not a chance I will say "Whoa, Bear!" to a charging brown bear. I will attempt to run away and will be eaten.But a few minutes later, as I watch from the viewing platform, a sow and two cubs lumber along the creek 30 yards away. They are, I think, the most astonishing things I've ever seen: the red-brown fur, the shambling walk, the sudden and surprising bursts of speed. The mother scans the creek for salmon, occasionally scooping one up, biting its belly, letting the carcass drop back to the creek. The cubs hunt, too, but get distracted, sitting down in the creek to splash water at each other.
Then, menace. A second, larger sow and her older son arrive. "He's trouble," the ranger says, "and his mom always backs him up." The first sow and cubs scatter downstream.
By now what had been drizzle has turned to hard rain. My glasses fog, the seams on my allegedly waterproof jacket let rivulets of cold water course down my back. I should be miserable but am entranced. The ranger leaves; I keep watching. The rain gives the scene a silent intimacy. All I hear is the sound of water falling and the occasional cry of a raven.
On that afternoon, all of Alaska seems like a bear: shrouded in mist and mystery, beautiful, forbidding, fiercely alive. You feel lifted out of yourself viewing it. You realize that what scared you the most was what you most needed to see. You realize, too, that what the trip has taught you is that the world is greater than you ever imagined. It has bears and glaciers, whales and wolves, and a prevailing sense of wonder. It would take a checklist as big as the universe to write it all down.
More: Alaska travel guide