Exploring Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park

Small ship cruises into remoteness

“You’ll need muck boots.”

That’s something you don’t hear very often from cruise ship staff. But we did indeed use muck boots during our vacation into the remote sections of Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve in Alaska.

After the land portion of our Alaskan vacation, we flew to Juneau and boarded a 60-person cruise boat for a seven-day adventure. We selected the ship and route that offered the most days exploring Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage, seeking intimate experiences with nature and wildlife not found in bigger ship casinos, mini golf courses or promenades.

We love the amenities on big cruise liners. However, on this vacation, we wanted to experience Alaska unlike our Caribbean trips. We chose UnCruise Adventures and their promise to show us the parts of Alaska that 95 percent of tourists don’t experience.

And they delivered.

Guests could view Lamplugh Glacier up close from kayaks.
Guests could view Lamplugh Glacier up close from kayaks.

Small cruise ship delivers hands-on outdoor fun

To give you an idea of why we enjoyed the small ship experience, here are five activity choices we had during one of our cruise days: 1) paddleboarding a glacier bay; 2) kayaking on inlet with sea otters and dolphins; 3) hiking up a mountain to look down at a glacier; 4) riding in a motorized skiff in front of a tidewater glacier; 5) snorkeling among beautiful sea life.

An UnCruise naturalist or adventure guide accompanied all of these activities, emphasizing environmental education and safety. Of course, you could also stay on the ship during the day, relax on the top deck, read or take in the views with a drink in hand. But even those sedentary options produced wildlife viewing as birds and sea life routinely passed the ship.

UnCruise provided all the excursion paraphernalia: kayaks, paddleboards, snorkeling equipment and wetsuits, muck boots, life jackets, binoculars, trekking poles and reusable water bottles.

Everyone wanted to see puffins. I photographed this one from the ship’s lower deck.
Everyone wanted to see puffins. I photographed this one from the ship’s lower deck.

Wildlife abounds on land and sea

Where to begin in Glacier Bay National Park? I’ll start with sea otters, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, dolphins and humpback whales. And sightings weren’t rare – we experienced them every day, sometimes every hour. By the last two days of the cruise, guests stopped calling out sea otter and bald eagle sightings because they were too common.

Most people cruised with the anticipation of seeing puffins, which I refer to as the circus clowns of the bird world. I photographed both tufted and horned puffins during the trip, along with black oystercatchers, bald eagles, harlequin ducks, endangered marbled murrelets and a variety of gulls and other birds.

Grizzly bear sightings on shore created the biggest rush to the ship’s outer decks. And unlike big cruise liners, our UnCruise boat, the Wilderness Adventurer, provided closer viewing. Our ship even slowed down and sometimes stopped as we stared behind binoculars and cameras.

Sea otters have rebounded from the precipice of extinction in Glacier Bay National Park.
Sea otters have rebounded from the precipice of extinction in Glacier Bay National Park.

Nature experts share knowledge

One of my favorite moments occurred when a Glacier Bay National Park ranger joined our cruise for two days. He interacted with guests, gave presentations during the day, sat at dinner with us and joined my skiff for an excursion. I idolize park rangers, not in a creepy, stalking sort of way – I just admire their commitment to protecting our environment. And I love learning about wildlife, the park system and the environment.

The ship’s staff continuously educated us about the national park, Alaska and the great outdoors. Several crew members gave evening presentations on topics such as whales, glaciers and John Muir’s influence on the region. Did you know that researchers fly drones through a whale’s blow (the upward spray) to collect snot samples? The presentations were educational as well as entertaining.

Itinerary includes Inside Passage highlights

Glacier Bay National Park highlighted our cruise – three days exploring this amazing wilderness. But we also explored other areas, including the town of Haines where we hiked and rafted through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

In addition, we docked at Barlett Cove, the location of the national park’s visitor center. We hiked the cove area and the lush Forest Trail, which grows atop a glacial moraine. Here we arrived back on the dock with some spare time before we re-boarded our ship. We struck up a conversation with the park ranger who was joining us for several days and he encouraged us to look around the dock pilings for sea stars, since it was low tide. Skeptical, we obliged and found an amazing collection of sea life attached to the dock supports. That special moment epitomized the advantages of cruising this region in a small ship.

UnCruise exceled at getting us close to wildlife and this grizzly bear, while still honoring their wilderness space.
UnCruise exceled at getting us close to wildlife and this grizzly bear, while still honoring their wilderness space.

UnCruise staff excel in tight quarters

We expected tight quarters and fewer amenities on a trip like this and, quite frankly, we didn’t miss the frills associated with big cruise liners. In exchange for resort-style features, we enjoyed great camaraderie, personal service, a wealth of knowledge and nature-all-day.

Our room was comfortable, the meals were creative and tasty and the open bar served wildly inventive drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Each night, we chose from an ocean, land and vegetarian entrée. We all met in the ship’s lounge every evening to hear about the next day’s itinerary with time for Q&A, followed by informative presentations and mingling at the bar.

Other tidbits from our trip

  • We brought along prescriptions for motion sickness in case of rough waters, but didn’t need them.
  • We forgot to pack snacks, but the ship offered plenty of complimentary munchies throughout the day.
  • We also forgot our National Parks Senior pass, but the cruise company handled all of those details, so the pass wasn’t missed.
  • We cruised in mid-June and brought along gloves, hats, long underwear and lots of layers. Those wardrobe choices kept us comfortable. For the most part, we just followed the pre-cruise advice from the tour company.

 

I’m not sure we could pick one favorite moment during this vacation. Maybe the meadow hike or the puffins taking flight. The calving glacier might top the list or possibly the group of ten sea otters floating together past our ship. One thing is an absolute – we’re going back.

Read more: Sampling Alaska with pre-cruise land trip