Neka Bay
Day 1 (Monday):

“We’re in frickin’ Neka Bay!”

We awake relatively early, partly because this Alaskan timezone is an hour behind Portland, and partly because the ship offers an “early risers breakfast” in the lounge to start the day.

We pre-dress in our spandex underlayers and some warm middle layers, and make our way out to the lounge for some pastries, oatmeal, fruit, granola bars and orange juice at the bar. It’s raining a bit and pretty blustery, as we still motor through to passage, but the clouds begin to let up a little and the rain stops the closer we get to the bay.

At 7:00, we make our way up to the “Aft 300”, the covered open-air area of the top deck, for some morning stretches led by Kelsie. Now, doing your morning stretches on a boat is grand enough, but doing them on a boat out in the middle of pristine Alaskan wildness is something else altogether. Looking out at the white cliffs and blue water, and breathing in the brisk, pure Alaskan air while you’re loosening up your hamstrings is almost otherworldly. And by 7:30, when we’re called into the dining room for the breakfast, we’re already so excited for the day.

Breakfasts on the boat are a relatively simple affair. A buffet of eggs, ham, sausage, perhaps tortillas for breakfast burritos. With the early riser breakfast upstairs just an hour or so earlier, you’d think we’d go for smaller portions, but that proved not to be the case. We’re going to gain 40 pounds before this cruise is over!

For the first time, I notice that the photos the crew had taken while we were embarking are hanging just inside the door to the galley kitchen. The stews were tasked with learning each and every passenger, by face, and note any food preferences or allergies. After the first night’s dinner, when Margaret had mentioned to one of the waiters that she had a dairy intolerance, the entire crew already knew by breakfast time. Items in the buffet were marked as containing dairy, and she was from then on almost always offered a dairy-free alternative. On several occasions, particularly with deserts, the staff would automatically prepare her dishes without cheese or cream. Twenty-five years of watching Margaret maneuver through life avoiding many types of dairy, this simple commitment by the crew and the cruise line was amazing to me.

We anchored late morning, in the middle of Neka Bay. By now, the rain had stopped completely and there was some sunlight peeking through. The wind was still blowing, though, whipping up some fairly tall waves, and Brittany had informed us over the lunch buffet that the captain deemed it too dangerous to send out kayaks. The skiff tour and bushwhack, however, were still on. We opted for the bushwhack, and after finishing our lunch, popped up to our cabin to add more layers - waterproof coats, waterproof pants, waterproof phone covers, a warm beanie, and those rubber boots – and then make our way back up to the Aft 300 to get fitted for those slightly-more-form-fitting PFDs for the skiff ride to shore. This bushwhack will be led by Erin, with Kelsie lending support corralling the hikers. The Expedition team is each outfitted with radios, a satellite GPS, and notably large cans of bear spray. You kind of forget this is still the wilderness, until you see those cans of bear spray.

The ship has a small magnetic board to indicate the current location of passengers – “aboard” or “ashore”. As you leave the ship or come back onboard, it is your responsibility to move the marker to it's appropriate column on the board.

Before we climb the stairs down to the fantail to board the skiff, we move our pegs to “ashore” for the first time, and there is already a sense of adventure.

“Come on the easy bushwhack, they said. It’ll be fun, they said”

The skiff drops us off on a small bit of rocky shoreline. There are no “dry” landings here. You shimmy to the front of the skiff and then drop down into the drink, happy to be in those thigh-high boots. There’s about 10 feet of shore, before the terrain immediately takes us up into the forest. Erin is excited because, when she’d been here before, shes been able to find a large “muskeg” - which is basically the artic version of a bog - deep in the forest. We trundle up the rocky berm and go searching for the muskeg. Erin calls out “hooooooo-weeeeee!!” to warn the bears we’re coming.

There are absolutely no trails in this wilderness. Zero. No markers, except for the occasional pile of deer scat. There are, however, long stems of pure evil Alaskans call “Devil’s Club”. Thick starched tan branches growing out of the mud and dirt, currently devoid of any signs of life other than a never-ending supply of small, razor-sharp thorns pointing in all directions. It’s as if someone took a porcupine, rolled it into a 4’ long cigar, and planted it’s head in the ground. And they know what they’re doing. They grow right where someone would tend to reach out to support themselves in the uneven terrain. There’s an old Alaskan saying: “if you’re presented with the choice between grabbing onto Devil’s Club and falling on your face onto a sharp rock, fall onto the sharp rock”. Erin calls out, “hoooooo-weeeeeee!”

Soon we are climbing over and under fallen trees, scrambling up rocks, falling into waist-deep pits, running up against steep cliffs that fall down to the water, backtracking three times, avoiding the Devil’s Club as best we can. “Hoooooo-weeeeeee!!!”

It becomes clear that none of this is looking familiar to Erin. We’ve lost the bearings to the muskeg. Now we’d just settle for successfully finding our way back to the shoreline. We can see the water, but we’re several yards above it, with no way down. “Hoooooo-weeeeeee!!”

Erin hands the reigns to Kelsie, and we continue on. Bill and Reed start to branch out on reconnaissance missions to find an escape. We pass by the same tree stump several times. “Hoooooo-weeeeeee!!”

Finally, as we were about to turn back a fourth time, Kelsie spots a narrow path down the high berm, and we exit the forest back onto the rocky beach. We are all exhausted, aching, but absolutely having had the time of our lives. The problem now is that the group is standing on the shore on the opposite side of the peninsula that we were supposed to be on to be picked up, and Erin is having trouble reaching the boat on the radio. Kelsie walks around the cove to try to get better reception, and once the boat is finally notified of our current updated pickup spot, they send out the skiff to retrieve us, with one final request: “bring beer”. We load onto the skiff, with broad smiles, and a toast. We never did find the muskeg, but we definitely have an adventure we’ll remember.

Afterwards, Kelsie made up special cards to attach to our name tag lanyards that read “I survived Erin & Kelsie’s ‘easy’ bushwhack”, and we had a fine story to tell our friends in the lounge. Hoooooo-weeeeeee!

And educational to boot!

Every night of the cruise, one of the Expedition team would present a brief slideshow in the lounge: Brittany talked about the fishing trade in southeast Alaska (including her father's boat), as well as another presentation on the various types of salmon in the area; Mickie told us about some of the old gold mining history of Alaska, as well as helpful hints to identify the different types of bears in these partsand other wildlife; Kelsie presented some interesting facts about marine life, including octopi, mollusks and shellfish.

Some factoids that we learned that might come in handy later:

  • The great Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800's was started by an indigenous fella known as Skookum Jim, who was a total badass; “Skookum” is native for “strong”, and he was known for hauling loads as heavy as 100 pounds along the mining trails. He now has an asteroid named after him.
  • You can remember the names of the 5 main species of Alaskan salmon by counting off your 5 fingers:

Thumb: Chum Salmon
Index finger: Sockeye Salmon (poke/sock someone's eye with your index finger)
Middle finger: King Salmon (the largest of your fingers)
Ring finger: Silver Salmon (that's where the silver ring goes)
Pinkie: Pink Salmon

  • Barnacles have the largest penises of the animal kingdom in proportion to their size.
Skookum Jim

Margaret and I adjourn to our cabin, take some much-needed Tylenol to soothe our aching bushwhacked muscles, and turn in early as the ship heads north to Haines. Hooooooooo-weeeeeeeeee.