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