Alaska: With stillness, perspective sharpens
I close my eyes in the silence, standing on a paddleboard in Walker Cove, Misty Fjords. Nature invites me to a time of quiet and stillness. I am surrounded by rock walls jutting 900 meters (3,000 feet) above the ocean, the National Geographic Sea Bird in front of me looks like a mere speck against this majestic backdrop.
The wilderness of Alaska (and NYC) has captured my imagination since watching the first episode of Northern Exposure on German TV in the ’90s. The show aired in the middle of the night and I saved up as a student to buy my first VCR, fascinated by the American culture clash.
Leaving the city lights behind, Northern Lights shimmer across the blue-black sky during the first night of our Alaska expedition with Lindblad, blanketing the Fjord’s cliffs with a glowing green river. We watch the spectacle unfold in awe, almost holding our breath, as the Northern Lights form a vivid arc.
The next morning the mountains are cloaked in low lying fog, as we glide through Owl’s Pass. Rainforests are growing on nearly vertical slopes from sea level to the mountaintops, the water of the blue glacial lakes is very still.
As the sun begins to rise, the mist lifts, and the reflections of the rock formations, waterfalls, and snowcapped peaks on the calm surface are picturesque.
Dall’s porpoises are riding the bow wave on our way to Grindall Island where the crew lowers the zodiacs from the upper deck into the ocean.
The roaring sound of stellar sea lions huddled together on a rock to dry off and warm up, cuts through the silence. We watch as the stellar sea lions occasionally scoot down on their gigantic flippers into the water to feed.
Hiking through the marshlands of Grindall Island, I am eternally grateful for my knee-length waterproof boots — they already came in handy during wet landings of the DIP cruises, but are clearly essential expedition gear as I am carefully setting one foot in front of the other in the mud, testing the slippery ground.
Cruising through the Ernest Sound, sitting criss-cross at the bow, there is a glimmer of movement on the horizon. I am mesmerized. The surface of the water is still and silent, birds are circling. Out of a sudden, a spray or mist can be seen, followed by flukes glistering in the sun. Humpback whales are diving below a school of fish, and then slowly they begin a spiral dance upwards towards the surface, blowing bubbles in a circular motion to form a net. I am drawn in by the highly synchronized effort of the humpback whales' bubble net fishing.
As the sun sets, we visit the Hump Island Oyster Company, locally-owned and operated, raising oysters on floating docks. After sampling fresh, BBQ-ed oysters, and homemade kelp sauce, we marvel at sea cucumbers, purple starfishes, and sea urchins.
We wake up to an overcast sky and slight drizzle in McHenry Inlet, and set out via kayak and later paddleboard to observe the wildlife from the water.
Harbor seals pop their heads above the surface and bald eagles are circling in the air, displaying their impressive wingspan of 6 feet. Yet again, a sense of tranquillity overcomes me as I am floating on the water on my paddleboard, gently propelling myself across the bay.
Back on board, we spot a jellyfish bloom color the water emerald green.
If bushwhacking is not in your daily vocabulary, don’t worry, it wasn’t in mine either until I hiked Alaska’s remote backcountry. And salmon runs take on a whole new meaning too. They swirl and wiggle in crystal water, the stream is jammed, I am inches away from millions of salmon swimming against the current. I am even more blown away by the salmon graveyard along the riversides though, which seems to be the course of nature following a period of spawning. What’s not normal is finding dead salmon before they have spawned apparently due to climate change.
The outside-facing cabins of the National Geographic Sea Bird are perfect for scanning the horizon at odd hours, camera and boots on standby all the time. At dawn, I grab my gear and head to the bow after catching a glimpse of icebergs passing by our cabin window in the LeConte Bay. High mountains surrounded by forests and shrouded in fog, contrast with the scintillating shades of blue and white, the calved-off icebergs from the LeConte Glacier.
Wearing double layers, we set out in zodiacs to see these gigantic sculptures up close.
The waves splash against the smooth surface of the icebergs, water sprays up in the air, sun glitter illuminates these icy, sparkly formations.
We venture up to the bridge as we are cruising north through Frederick Sound and into Stephens Passage, sighting a moving rainbow.
As we anchor, the expedition leader takes our teenage children on a special DIB cruise where they will learn how to drive a zodiac. Our children quickly pick up the basics, and not afraid of speed, they are thrilled as the water rushes by and the shoreline blurs.
As if that adrenaline rush wasn’t enough, I brave the elements and join my daughter in the polar plunge. Standing on the zodiac’s bow, I leap in with style, and the freezing, subzero water instantly makes me feel like the air is getting sucked out of my lungs. As I swim around the zodiac to the ladder, all I can think of is that next time I am going to jump in closer to it. It’s an even more invigorating experience than my annual Polar Bear Plunge in Coney Island on New Year’s Day.
Elated, and bundled up after a hot shower, I am sitting at the bow on my favorite spot. What I witness next is an explosion of air as a group of humpback whales surfaces in the center of a bubble circle, their mouths gaping wide open, full of small fish, and they go back down their flukes lifting.
I only have a faint idea of what the whales are doing in the world beneath us, and really no idea where they will pop up next, but I have a very good idea that this is truly the place to get away from it all and where we will go next!