Monday, September 10, 2018

Alaska at a Civilized Pace

John Muir said to explore at a saunter, meaning walk at a leisurely pace.  Pam and I spent a week on the nautical equivalent of a saunter between Sitka and Petersburg aboard the wooden 86' Westward.  Built on the form of a salmon troller, but reinforced for exploring icy Alaskan water, she cruises at a leisurely 6-1/2 knots.There are four twin staterooms below for passengers and on the main deck a midship salon with a fireplace.  The stern is an enclosed lounge/dining area.  She rides smoothly.  Her size allowed access to locations impossible to larger ships. She is a beauty.  Captain Bill Bailey is continuing a 94 year legacy of care for the Westward.

Central to the Westward's character is the original 4 cylinder Atlas diesel. (That's the engineer in me speaking.) The engine is so efficient it cruises for an hour on only 3 gallons of diesel.  Here, Captain Bill is going through the start-up, including manually oiling over 100 points.  He used compressed air to turn the engine and start cylinder one, and then he pulls in the other cylinders.  All of the push rods and such are exposed, giving us a fascinating view in a short video.  It is manually lubricated every 3 hours. Still running well after 94 years.

A typical day on the Westward includes time on the deck watching the scenery and looking for whales while the venerable Atlas diesel saunters to our next stop, or maybe a quiet cove for the night.

Sometimes we saw a passing tug hauling freight north from Seattle. This is the Western Mariner northbound on a misty afternoon. Don't be fooled, this is a brute of an ocean-going tug capable of facing 50 knot storms in winter. The Western fleet is famous for its ships and its  service to Alaska.

Other times we passed fishing boats such as the Matilda Bay.

On day 3, as we headed south on Chatham Strait near the Peril Strait, the captain announced  whales bubble-feeding along the shore.  For the next 2-1/2 hours, Captain Bill kept us close to a group of eleven Humpback Whales.  It was wild. They passed so close once that we felt the spray as one whale spouted. 

The whales dive to locate small fish, likely herring, and blow bubbles in a circle around the school.  They circle and tighten the ring, then they drop below the school and rush upward with jaws open wide. The gulls swarm to grab any stunned fish.  

We also boarded a skiff to go ashore or cruise a secluded area. One morning, we went ashore at the Hidden Falls Fish Hatchery. The salmon were running, and that meant Brown Bears.  We saw twenty-one including this huge sow with four cubs. They were about 80' away.  No fear, salmon is on their minds.

The tide was low. Salmon could not get farther upstream. If a smaller bear caught a fish, it wisely headed for the forest before a dominant bear could take it.  Otherwise, the big sow would act like a ruthless tax collector.  Survival has no room for manners, particularly if you have four cubs.  

Another highlight of the trip was visiting two glaciers.  The first, Baird Glacier, no longer reaches the tide water.  The skiff took us up the swiftly moving outflow for a hike. Periodically, the glacier backs up melt water, and it grows until it surges out in a strong flood that remakes the land.  We were walking out on new land with blooming fire weed, mosses and alders.

Up close, Baird Glacier is heavily laden with crushed rock, providing evidence of its assault on the mountains.  The steady wind coming down off of the glacial ice provided the only truly cold experience of the trip.

That night, we were in the appropriately named Scenic Cove for another fine meal. We began with pumpkin seed, green chili and posole soup.  Next was shrimp-filled roasted poblano with avocado puree, shrimp and smoked paprika oil.  Desert was chocolate and morila chile souffle, canela crema, cacao nibs and cactus pear syrup.  Now, you may think that we gained a lot of weight on this trip, but not so.  The portions emphasized quality. All of the items avoided every food allergy.  Our chef, Tracie Triolo, was a genius.
The next morning we headed for the tidal LeConte Glacier.  It became a misty rain as we approached.   The steep shores had numerous cascades of water that stretched up into the clouds. A strong cold mist blew in our faces, but our attention was fixed on a pinnacle of ice that was nearing collapse.  As the glacial ice pack pushed to sea, small avalanches of ice rolled off its edges. Here is a video of what we waited for.


That evening, we docked in Petersburg and began to prepare for our departure.  It was a memorable trip thanks to the ship's crew of Captain Bill Bailey, Chef Tracie Triolo and Naturalist Caroline Olson. They kept us safe, comfortable and well-fed. 

Our photo leader, Wendy Shattil, was a valuable resource for everyone, regardless of photographic skills.  Her evening programs incorporating our daily images were fun, and built our skills.  She helped us process photos, stepped in when a camera or a photo was being difficult and, along with Caroline, kept us on track when afield.

Finally, a salute to our fellow passengers shown below with Wendy Shattil.  It was lovely sauntering from Sitka to Petersburg with them.   One of the joys of a small ship is the ability to get to know everyone. They were all great companions. We'd never hesitate to travel with them again.  

I'll be back later with more images of  the Brown Bears and the Humpback Whales.



  1. I’m blown away especially by the huge bear with the salmon in it’s mouth and the other bear with four cubs. Lovely misty quality to others - the camera can work with mist.

  2. Wow! Paul. You never disappoint. Thanks so much for sharing. Janet

  3. The scenery is astounding and your camera work impeccable!