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A huge chunk of ice shears from South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm fjord, Alaska. Photo/Norman Meyer

Sailing and sunbathing in Alaska

Joanna Wane sails north to the ice and finds all is not what it seems.

The dark-blue fragment is barely the size of a baby’s fingernail. Still, the discovery of it – deep inside a remote marine park – is heartbreaking.

Earlier in the day, undersea specialist James Hyde had given a sobering presentation, “The Miracle turned Monster”, on the devastation caused by plastics in the ocean. A photo he’d taken on a previous trip to the Baja peninsula in Mexico showed an osprey sitting on a huge nest the bird had constructed entirely from plastic waste.

Human debris, so carelessly discarded. The planet is drowning in it. A report released in late July estimates we’ve thrown away three-quarters of the volume of plastics ever produced. Nine million tonnes of it end up in the sea every year.

But not here, surely. Not here.

Klewnuggit Inlet presses deep into the mainland of British Columbia, just shy of that invisible line where Canadian waters spill over the south-eastern toe of Alaska. The coves where we kayak are sheltered by voluptuous mounds of green – craggy mountains ground into rolling hills by long-ago glaciers as highways of ice carved through to the sea.

The water is still and achingly cold, so deep it almost looks black. But settle into the moment, allow yourself to be still, and the vast emptiness above and below is thick with life. Inquisitive Steller sea lions pop up their heads like marine meerkats, always at a safe distance; like Sand People, they’re easily startled. White-speckled orange and purple sea stars cling to rocks at the tideline. Translucent jellyfish pulsate through the water.

Overhead, birds seem to sweep and whoop across the sky for the glorious joy of it, and naturalist Steve Backus can identify the call of each one. Rumour has it he was once a bass player in a rock band, but he’s in his element here – an unruly spike of hair risking romantic attention should he be spotted by a tufted duck. Everyone is scouring the coastline for bears.

Quest naturalist Jill Niederberger leads a kayak expedition around Chichagof Island. She lives in Hawaii, where she volunteers for a whale marine sanctuary, and ranks kelp (alongside humpbacks) right at the top of her list of favourite things. Photo/Helga Lucas

It’s postcard-perfect in the sunshine, dangerously close to T-shirt weather, although it’s only spring, and I’ve packed for the Arctic chill. Red spruce and cedar trees bend over the water, admiring their reflections. Apart from our small group, there’s no one else in sight. How’s the serenity? Then Hyde empties out the contents of his net.

For the past half hour, he’s been towing the fine mesh net behind his inflatable, skimming the top 30cm of the water for microplastics: pieces so small they’re ending up in the digestive systems of marine life at an alarming rate. Hyde’s survey, covering a square mile of water, is part of a global citizen-science project to assess contamination levels in apparently pristine environments like this one, recording baseline measurements that can be monitored over time.

Tow sampling is “pretty darned new on our fleet”, he’d told us back on the mother ship, the National Geographic Quest. We’re on a two-week Treasures of the Inside Passage cruise from Seattle to Sitka through a network of sheltered channels and islands – a shipping route once favoured by those seeking their fortune in Alaska during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. On a map, it looks as if as someone’s taken to the coastline with a hammer, splintering the mainland and scattering the fragments at sea.

Eco-travel company Lindblad has been in partnership with National Geographic since 2004, running boutique expeditions to parts of the world often inaccessible to large cruise ships. The cost of a cabin isn’t cheap, but instead of rock-climbing walls and casinos, what you pay for is expertise.

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An expedition ship, the National Geographic Quest carries a maximum of 100 passengers and can access remote areas off limits to large cruise ships. This shot was taken in British Columbia during one of the kayaking trips that were offered almost daily.

Alongside Hyde and birder Backus, expedition staff aboard the Quest include a clutch of naturalists, a specialist on First Nations culture, a photography instructor nicknamed “Iceman” due to his passion for glaciers, and acclaimed National Geographic magazine photographer Flip Nicklin, renowned for his pioneering underwater work with whales. They’re the kind of people who see humans as an invasive species but get genuinely excited by kelp and barnacles and the bizarre mating habits of leopard slugs – hermaphrodites that are hung like a horse and can copulate for days at a time. Believe me, you don’t want to know the details.

Microplastic tows were piloted on a trip to Antarctica the previous summer; those samples came up clean, but less than half of plastics float, so who knows what might be on the ocean floor.

At Klewnuggit Inlet, a few of us go along for the ride. We all crane forward as Hyde lifts his net from the water and carefully empties it into a sieve. “There’s lots of tree matter, you can see that right off the bat,” he says, using tweezers to rifle through the debris. “Kelp, a fair amount of gelatinous organisms of some kind. Some larval crabs floating around… and a microplastic.”

Dispiritedly, we take turns poking at the small blue chip, which doesn’t give under pressure in the way you’d expect from something organic. The sample, labelled with the date and GPS location, will be sent off for analysis and the site recorded as positive for contamination. “We did want a zero, and I could be wrong,” says Hyde, putting a brave face on it. “I didn’t really expect it. But there’s a lot of fishing going on, people live round here. It’s definitely less pristine than Antarctica. So I guess I’m not all that surprised.”

Back onboard the ship, the mood is subdued. It’s a full moon, creating such a powerful lunar tug there’s a six-metre fluctuation between low and high tide. After dinner, I sit on the aft deck long into the evening, wrapped in a blanket, watching the sunset. The sea is streaked with silver and the sky slowly fades to dusky pink, but I’m in bed before it finally darkens. We sail through the night and by dawn, we’ve crossed into Alaska.

 

To be honest, I’ve been itching to get here. The Canadian coastline is lovely, for sure; in five days, we identify eight new bird species not previously recorded by the ship on this route. Bald eagles – once endangered – are commonplace now, but I’ll never forget my first sighting of one in the wild.

Off Vancouver, we explore a private island that used to be owned by David Conover, the photographer who “discovered” Norma Jeane before she became Marilyn Monroe. At Alert Bay, we hear heartbreaking stories from the local Kwakwaka’wakw people of another stolen generation. In Georgia Strait, we watch orca feeding, and one magical morning, a quicksilver pod of Dall’s porpoises spends half an hour riding our bow waves. “Oh my god, they’re everywhere!” someone says, flailing around with her camera. “And I haven’t got a photo of any of them!”

Yet, to a New Zealander’s eyes at least, the terrain feels familiar and a little too benign. On our first day out of Seattle, a phalanx of cameras and binoculars crowd the observation deck as we stop to marvel at the exotic wildlife on an offshore island, inhabited by… sitka deer and bighorn sheep. True wilderness awaits further north.

“The Great Alone” is what Kristin Hannah calls Alaska in her novel about a family of cheechakoes (newcomers) forced to confront their own psychological darkness. “Alaska can be a Sleeping Beauty one moment and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next,” Hannah writes. “[It] doesn’t create character, it reveals it.”

Alaska is home to half the world’s bald eagles. Photo/Zhiling Xiong

Our first day, exploring the Misty Fjords, is almost disappointingly clear and sunny, although the surrounding mountain ranges are promisingly draped in snow. A couple of months later, Alaska swelters through a record summer heatwave, and mass puffin deaths will be linked to diminished food supplies due to a lack of winter sea ice. But early one morning, I look out my porthole and see an iceberg floating by.

We’re deep in bear country and have already been given “the talk”, back in Canada. Frankly, it was terrifying. Bears can swim, climb trees and run almost 50kmh; it’s said their bite could crush a bowling ball, and their sense of smell is seven times better than a dog’s. Apparently cubs hum when they’re happy, just like Winnie-the-Pooh.

A pair of brown bears, lean and hungry after hibernating for winter, forage on the shoreline. Photo/Zhiling Xiong

There’s a certain piquancy to hiking in bear territory, although the aim is never to actually encounter one when you’re on foot. We’ve spotted a few black bears and brown bears from the ship, including a pair of cubs who tumble down the steep granite cliff face to forage for mussels on the shoreline, their mother ambling slowly behind, but the white Kermode “spirit bear” remained elusive.

Admiralty Island has more brown bears per square metre than anywhere else in the world. Each of our guides carry two cans of special repellent – “like pepper spray on steroids” – and we find signs of bears all through the forest: fur caught in some bark where one scratched its back; gouges in the trunk where another sharpened its claws. Paw prints. A pile of bear poop. The trees are upholstered in lichen, and shoots of new growth colour the bush a limpid green.

They call spring “break-up” in Alaska, especially further north, where the thaw brings rivers of mud and treacherous ground underfoot. In the 1960s, Owen Walker spent his last two years of high school in Fairbanks, up near the Arctic Circle, where the Matanuska wind off the river was so strong that you could literally lean on it. In the long darkness of winter, the temperature would fall to minus 45°C; even then, girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers to school. In the twilight of summer, he’d come home from a date at 2am and find his neighbour working the pea fields. “The light has a special quality to it – you expect to see elves,” he says. “But it’s a different rhythm of living and that really messes some people up.”

A master goldsmith, Walker is the Quest’s cultural specialist on this trip, sharing his knowledge of First Nations legend and lore. He lives on the Lummi reservation in Washington now, but still remembers those dark winters in Alaska when he’d layer up and walk into the wilderness to commune with the wolves. “I’d howl at them and they’d howl back,” he says. “And we’d sing back and forth – until they decided I didn’t really have anything to say.”

On Mitkof Island, we visit Petersburg, a fishing community with a bizarrely Scandinavian flavour thanks to its Norwegian founder; speed bumps are called “Fartsdemper” here. The bars in town open in time for breakfast, and the weekly paper’s most recent “police report” includes a 73-year-old issued a citation for excessive speed.

The writer of this story, dressed for the Arctic chill.

Jim and Gayle Eastwood have been fishing in Alaska for 40 years, so you could say they’re still cheechakoes; it takes a few generations before you’re considered locals. But when they threw a party to celebrate the centenary of their boat, the Charles T, nearly the whole town turned up. The couple have a summer house in Fairbanks – Gayle once shot a bison there from her kitchen window. In winter, the Interior gets only a couple of hours of daylight. “A lot of the wives don’t make it,” says Jim. “There are people who love it; the rest don’t last long.”

Steve Berry came to Petersburg in 1975 on a two-week vacation, and never left. In 1995, he made the front page of the Petersburg Pilot when a humpback landed on his whale-watching boat. “The sucker came up right next to us and did this pirouette,” he says. “Then its pectoral slapped across the boat.” The impact caused $30,000 worth of damage and knocked three people into the water, but miraculously no one was hurt. “Everyone wanted to go out with me after that.”

There are people who travel across the world to see the Southern Lights. I’d have come all this way just for Alaska’s glaciers, to hear the “white thunder” roar in the belly of these walls of ancient ice, drizzled with brilliant curacao-blue. At Margerie Glacier, there’s an apocalyptic crack as huge chunks shear from the cliff face, which rises 65 metres straight up from the sea. It’s in retreat now, but legend tells of the local Huna Tlingit people hearing a tremendous rumbling and turning to see the glacier advancing down the valley towards them, as fast as a dog could run.

National Park Service ranger Janene Driscoll has come on board for the day, and talks of the altered state climate change has brought to our planet and the life within it (a few weeks later, Iceland would hold a “funeral” for its first lost glacier). Be changed by what you’ve experienced here, Driscoll urges, and take a little bit of Alaska home in your heart.

And I have. I’m trying to live more lightly, more consciously, in the world now: my takeaway coffee, my deodorant and even my (microbead-free) toothpaste now comes in glass. It’s only a start, I know, but small things matter too. That microplastic we found in Klewnuggit Inlet? It turned out to be a chipped mussel shell. So Hyde got to mark down a zero, after all.

Lindblad Expeditions’ 14-day Treasures of the Inside Passage small-ship cruise operates from Seattle to Sitka, resuming May 2020 on board the new National Geographic Quest or National Geographic Venture. Cabins available from $14,300 per person twin share. To find out more about this trip – and other cruises in Alaska and beyond – see expeditions.com or ph 0800 444 462. 

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.