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Discovering The True Meaning Of Life Aboard An Alaskan Charter

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The trip of a lifetime. That’s how everyone described my upcoming assignment to Alaska on a 10-day charter with NW Explorations. After returning I have to say, it was that and so much more.

Each summer, NWE (NW Explorations) hosts a guided bareboat charter called the “Mother Goose Flotilla” that travels through the Inside Passage to Alaska over the course of 12 weeks in six separate legs. Clients choose to participate in one or more legs depending on what area they’d like to explore and have their choice of cruising vessel from the all-Grand Banks fleet. I’d chosen to participate in leg five, given the name “Best of Alaska: Juneau to Ketchikan” (sounded like the right choice to me), where we would visit Tracy Arm Cove, Cleveland Passage, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Meyers Chuck along the way.

This assignment was not only an opportunity for me to finally see the much-adored Inside Passage, but it would also be my first visit to Alaska and my longest consecutive time aboard a boat. I can now say without a doubt that I wouldn’t have wanted to experience Alaska any other way.

Independently Dependent

The flotilla allows clients to visit the immensely beautiful Alaskan coast independently on a chartered boat, while providing the comfort of guidance from a lead vessel (hence the name Mother Goose) and the camaraderie of fellow charterers doing the same thing.

NWE requires clients to have an adequate amount of boating experience before chartering, but skill levels can vary. For the less experienced, NWE offers a First Mates Training Course as a supplement to the charter. If your cruising resume meets the company’s expectations, there’s no need to take the training course. In addition to chartering and training, NWE features a yacht brokerage portion of the business as well.

A personal journey

When my departure day arrived, to say I was ready to get away is an understatement. Life was hectic and I was more than ready for an escape from it all. I was excited to visit a beautiful place that had always been on my bucket list, but also a little nervous to be out of touch from friends, family, and work for 10 days. I still wasn’t sure what this experience would be like, on a boat with strangers and limited outside contact with the rest of the world. I quickly snapped out of it, pushed my worries out of my mind, and focused on the bigger picture: I was traveling to a place people dream of going their entire lives! But I still had to face an even larger dilemma—how was I going to fit all my belongings into this small duffle bag that I was told to bring?

Wake up and smell the Spruce!

When I arrived in Juneau, Alaska, in late July, I was greeted by Cindy Douglass, wife of Bill Douglass, the captain of the flotilla’s lead vessel. I walked out of the airport and I was immediately struck by the fresh, cool, crisp air and strong smell of Sitka spruce trees. As I looked around at the unspoiled beauty around me, it finally hit me that I was actually doing this. After I wiped the silly grin off my face, we made our drive to Auke Bay Harbor, where the rest of the fleet was finishing up provisioning for our journey.

As we pulled into the harbor, I saw the Grand Banks fleet lined up at the docks including Deception, the GB 49 that would be the lead vessel and my home for the next 10 days. I would be cruising with Bill and Cindy, as well as Emmelina Mojica, a naturalist for NWE, and her 8-year-old daughter Lisiana.

I had just enough time to drop off my version of packing light in my V-berth when it was time to head to our welcome-night orientation dinner. Here, the crews of all five participating boats met to hear our itinerary and rules, and to learn how this was all going to work logistically.

Meet and Greet

We gathered at the Thane Ore House Salmon Bake, a restaurant unlike any I’d ever been to. It was more like a lodge—simple and rustic. I was starting to realize that people in Alaska did things simply, and this was just the beginning.

It came time for everyone to introduce themselves, starting with the crew of Arctic Star. Sue and Bob Griffin, a couple from Jupiter, Florida, wereproud new owners of a Grand Banks Eastbay and had just completed a cruise through Norway. The Griffins would also be staying for the sixth and final leg of the flotilla.

On Navigator was another couple with great energy. Doug and Peggy McDowell from Sante Fe, New Mexico, had previously chartered with NWE in 2007 with their son, and decided to do it again on their own as a celebration of Peggy’s birthday.

Mystic Eagle was the largest vessel and was made up of a family from Phoenix, Arizona. Keno and Penny led the pack, which included their son Clifford and his friend Zach, Keno’s son Ryan and his wife Renee, and after they departed in Petersburg they’d be replaced by Penny’s daughter Shelby and her husband Alberto.

Finally, the last group comprised two fun-loving couples from Yellowknife, Northern Territories, Canada—Yves Beauregard and Maryse Larocque and George and Elizabeth Gelb.

The group seemed eager to get started as we sat through the orientation, which covered safety procedures and keeping in touch through VHF, and answered the many questions we all had.

Casting off

By the time I awoke the next morning, Bill and Emmelina were already filling the holding tanks of each boat with water and finishing last-minute preparations before our departure.

When we were ready to cast off, Deception was first to head out of the harbor as the rest of the fleet filed behind us. Looking back at the fleet, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of family. We were all pretty much strangers at this point, but we were in this together and excited to start the journey.

Our first day out was misty, foggy, and chilly. Today would be a seven-hour trip through Stephens Passage, where we would anchor out for the first night in Tracy Arm Cove.

A couple of hours into our day, in Taku Harbor, things were quiet aboard Deception when suddenly we heard Emmelina yell, “Blow!” Excited and a bit confused, I ran to the window and realized why she was yelling—it was our first whale sighting! Emmelina informed us these were humpback whales, and quickly got on the VHF to inform the fleet. Soon enough we saw one breach and everyone on board let out a gasp in awe. I thought to myself, “ I’m done, I could leave now a happy girl.”

Still amazed by what I had just experienced, I stood watch for the first time as we approached Tracy Arm Cove. “The cove” is actually unnamed on the nautical chart but is a well-known anchorage for cruisers wanting to explore into Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm. As we turned to port into what would be our anchorage for the night, I gasped at its beauty. Fog covered the tips of the mountains around our serene, protected anchorage. Other than our fleet, I could see only a few other boats. Bill scouted out anchorage spots for each boat and then made his rounds by dinghy to make sure everyone was secure and set for the night.

I realized that each individual could make this experience whatever they wanted it to be. A couple wanting privacy could stay to themselves and have minimal interaction with the lead vessel and fleet, but you could also make this experience a social one. Either way, the feeling of togetherness and knowing you’re not alone is a comforting one.

The next day we would head to Tracy Arm to see Sawyer Glacier, one of the last tidewater glaciers that is still calving directly into the sea. We approached Tracy Arm deep in a fjord with our depth finder showing 1,100 feet of water below us. As we navigated our way closer, we dodged many “bergy bits,” chunks of ice that had fallen from the glacier. We felt privileged to be getting closer to the glacier than other, larger vessels could. It was dead quiet in the fjord as we got close. All I could hear was the sound of bits of the glacier falling into the water below. It gave me chills.

Lost at Sea

We continued to Cannery Cove in Pybus Bay, another six-hour cruising day. The fleet was still on a high after seeing our first glacier up close as we headed through Stephens Passage.

A day that started out calm and foggy quickly turned into 20–25-knot winds and waves up to 4 to 5 feet. As we checked on the fleet behind us, we saw that they were getting tossed around more than we were. Bill stayed in touch via VHF, making sure everyone was doing okay, but all were pretty quiet that day. I knew if the crew on Deception was feeling queasy, the rest of the fleet couldn’t be doing much better. As we finished the last ginger ale on board, the skies cleared and we moved closer inland toward Cannery Cove. Let’s just say we all described this day in our logbooks as “lost at sea.”

After Bill showed the fleet to their anchoring spots, Emmelina and I decided to dinghy over to the other boats. As we headed toward Arctic Star, Emmelina spotted a brown mother bear and four cubs ashore. She said this was a rare sight and I just sat and stared in awe. Every day so far I’ve seen something new.

In this remote anchorage lies Pybus Point Lodge, only accessible by boat or seaplane, where you can dine, fish, or stay overnight. Emmelina and I brought the dinghy over and as we pulled up to shore, I felt so far removed from civilization sitting here surrounded by nothing. Petersburg is the closest town at 30 miles away—I couldn’t imagine living in a place so isolated. It brought me down to earth a bit as I thought about the Alaskan way of life. The people here probably live happier lives because they live simply; life is more peaceful and there is less to worry about. I couldn’t help but take note of this lifestyle and hope that I could carry on that mindset when I returned home.

Feeling Like A Family

Moving on to Petersburg, I noticed the fleet coming together. They used the VHF more often to banter back and forth with each other, and I could tell everyone was settled in and enjoying our trip. We had hit the halfway point, so I was hoping to get to know the rest of my traveling companions better once we pulled into our first marina stop.

Petersburg, a town with a population of 3,500, is known for its Norwegian heritage and is nicknamed the Halibut Capital of Alaska. Lucky for us, we were going halibut and salmon fishing the next day with a local fisherman in town.

Here, we gained another traveling companion, David Carnahan. David was the maintenance manager for NWE and would be traveling with us for the remainder of the trip to help with some issues on some of our boats. As the saying goes, “They are boats, things will go wrong!”

Our fishing trip wasn’t that successful, although we caught three good-sized halibut and got to know Captain Craig, who had lived in Petersburg his entire life. He explained to us that Alaskan life is humble; people are nice and material things are not important to them. “People don’t make much, but have what they need to get by and that’s enough,” said Craig.

When I asked him if he was curious about what it was like to live elsewhere, he said he was perfectly content with where he was. Being around people like Craig made me realize that the little things we worry about at home are not that important. While living this simply seemed so far from my reach, it was refreshing to learn that it can be so satisfying.

Bill and David were out doing some last-minute repairs to the boats before we departed for Wrangell. It was the first day of sunny 65-degree weather as we traveled down Wrangell Narrows, a 22-mile passage far different than anything we’ve seen on the trip so far. There was quite a bit of boat traffic as we passed a tug and tow, small lodges every mile or so, and lots of bald eagles on mile markers. This was the first time I’d seen mile markers on this trip.

It was such a good day for everyone. The sun was out, we had our best weather of the trip and it made a world of difference in everyone’s spirits. (Anything felt better than the “lost at sea” day!) On this day I realized I wanted the voyage to go slowly from here on.

Wrangell is one of the smaller, less sophisticated towns and more relaxed than Petersburg with a population of 2,000. We tied up at nice new docks at the protected Heritage Harbor Marina. A 25-minute walk into town offered quaint stores, two food markets, and a museum.

Our night in Wrangell marked a turning point in the trip. Everyone was off their boats, visiting each other, and having cocktails and dinner together. It felt like an open house. Our crews were seeing the other boats, curious as to how they’d been living so far. Some preferred nights at anchorages, but for me, being on the docks and socializing was a highlight. We had come from all areas of the world, but shared the common desire to take this journey. Out of it came relationships we would never forget.

An optional excursion in Wrangell was a Stikine River trip via jet boat. I was anxious to meet our local guide, Jordan, who would provide another perspective of what life was like here. Jordan called himself a “Wrangellite,” and much of what he said about life here mimicked Captain Craig in Petersburg. Jordan was in his early 20s, so I guess I expected to hear that he was anxious to leave such a small town. His response was quite the opposite. He said his friends who had moved to the mainland had all moved back because something about living here made it difficult to live anywhere else.

The following day I made the run to Meyers Chuck with Doug and Peggy aboard Navigator. I wanted to get to know them better, but I was also curious about what it was like be aboard one of the other vessels. I’m so glad I spent this time with them. Cruising with the couple was relaxing and engaging. We had conversations that I will never forget about living life to the fullest and keeping a positive attitude. Hearing Doug and Peggy’s point of view on life was inspiring.

As we pulled into the charming cove off Meyers Chuck Harbor, I knew immediately that this was going to be my favorite stop of the trip. By far the smallest town we’d visit, it felt like a fairytale, like going back in time. The town was more of a cove and consisted of a handful of cabins and a post office—that was about it. The NWE group highlighted this location as the place where “the lady sells the cinnamon buns.” We were all pretty excited for that.

Being our last stop before Ketchikan, I was ready to get on the dinghy and explore. We found out a small shop called The Gallery would be opening for us for about an hour, so we all got in our dinghies and walked to the shop where a local woman in a small house showed us local crafts and art. Afterward, a few of us walked to a part of the forest Doug said was a must-see. We called it the “enchanted forest.” The walkway was paved with sawdust and it reminded me of something out of a fairytale movie. Moss-covered trees and pathways made it look unreal. Every turn was a more charming view of the harbor. The path finally led to a beach where we spent about an hour looking for shaped rocks and just sitting there, reflecting on our trip. The weather was sunny and beautiful. I wanted to savor every moment because I knew I wouldn’t have many more moments like this one left.

That night came our “last supper” where members of each boat cleaned out their galleys for a potluck dinner aboard Deception. Emmelina closed the evening with a slideshow of photos taken from the past nine days. As I looked around, I couldn’t see a dry eye in the saloon. We’d experienced so much together in the past two weeks and we didn’t want to say our goodbyes.

Bittersweet Endings

Bob and Sue of Arctic Star invited me aboard their boat for the trip to our final destination—Ketchikan. The Griffins were easygoing traveling companions and it was a relaxing last leg. Cruising aboard the other boats provided me with a different view of the trip; the two couples I cruised with were truly getting the most out of this experience. I’m glad I was able to see it through their eyes. I asked Bob and Sue what they thought of the trip and was reminded that they’d also be joining the next leg, which would introduce them to a whole new group of people. “We don’t know that we’d do this by ourselves,” Bob said. “It makes it more like a vacation. If we weren’t doing this [flotilla], I’d be spending an hour a day planning our route and it would be a lot more stressful.”

As we neared busy Ketchikan, which seemed like a metropolitan city compared to what I’d seen over the past 10 days, seaplanes flew overhead. After exploring Ketchikan with Sue from Arctic Star and purchasing some last-minute souvenirs, I returned with a bittersweet feeling. I had come to this peaceful state of mind over the course of our journey and I didn’t want to leave it or leave the friendships I had made along the way.

Early the next morning, as I caught the water taxi to the Ketchikan airport, my new friends lined up at the dock to bid me goodbye. As I pulled away I felt like I was leaving my family. Doug said it best, “ We started as strangers and end this journey as family.” I felt so lucky to not only experience this truly special place, but I was also glad to have shared it with this amazing group of people. They had all impacted me in some way, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Visiting Alaska made me feel like I had been let in on a secret, and Alaska will always hold a special place in my heart. I can’t help but let the feeling of peace I had and the Alaskan way of life affect me and the way I view things today.

The Pybus Point Lodge, in the middle of nowhere and far from any civilization, writes on their brochure, “Alaska is a voyage into the soul. Experience it.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.