Embarkation Day (Sunday):

Good Morning, Juneau

The cruise line office opens at 11:00 for passengers to drop off their luggage before we can board at 5:00, so we take a leisurely stroll around Juneau in the morning before we have to check out of our hotel. We find a great breakfast place in town called the Sandpiper Inn, walk by the dock to get our first look at our ship Wilderness Explorer (it’s just the perfect size!), and then happen upon the amazing sculpture of Tahku, the Alaskan whale. The sculpture was still being cleaned and refurbished this early in the season, so the fountain was drained and dry and we didn’t get the full effect of what must seem like a life-sized whale jumping out of the water in the middle of this courtyard, but it was still impressive nonetheless.

Then it was back to the hotel to finish packing up the bags, and walking them the few blocks down to the dock. We popped into the Uncruise office, checked in, tied our cabin tags onto our bags, were issued lanyards with name tags (which they recommend you “wear for at least the first couple of days on the boat”) and spent a good amount of time talking with the agents about things to do in Juneau before departure time. They were so knowledgeable and fun and friendly, it was obvious they loved the town.

On their recommendation, we trekked up the hill to seek out the Perseverance Trail, which winds through the wilderness above town. Now when I say “hill”, I mean “mountain”. And when I say “trekked”, I mean “barely made it without keeling over dead”. While the path up to the trail was mainly along city streets and sidewalks, it was over a 45 degree incline, and even the sidewalks had handrails. But we eventually made it up to the plateau, and the start of the trail, and ventured out to the “Last Chance Mining Museum” at the trailhead a mile or so on. The museum was closed, but we saw some interesting gold mining equipment, and eventually hopped over to the Flume Trail on the way back into town which took us along some old railroad tracks and trestles that hugged the mountainside.

Now, whoever has the “stair building” contract in Juneau is making a killing, because they’re absolutely everywhere. Metal and wood, and pretty narrow. And not just short little staircases, either, these are flight after flight, going up hundreds of feet. Just to get from one area of town to another. It’s kind of cool, but also very exhausting. We finally made it back down to the dock about 3:30. Still too soon to board the boat, but not soon enough for a nice cool drink and some coconut shrimp appetizers on the wharf.

Eventually 5 o’clock rolled around and we made our way to gather at the dock with the other passengers. As we made our way down the gangplank to the boat I think we all muttered the same question amongst ourselves; “is this all of us??” There were all of 20 passengers on the dock including us. This was going to be even better than we’d hoped.

“Welcome aboard!”

Each solo passenger or couple was greeted individually by the captain, as the crew took a quick picture of us standing boatside*, then led us individually to our respective cabins. When we were shown to our cabin, we were pleasantly surprised by the accommodations. It was relatively spacious and warm. Where many of the other passengers had cabins with their doors and windows on the outside of the boat, accessed by an exterior promenade, our door was accessed from the inside of the boat, directly adjacent to the lounge at the bow, so we could get to the dinning room and other parts of the ship without having to deal with the weather, while at the same time we had a larger window that no one would be walking by. We initially were not altogether sure how this arrangement would work out, since the lounge was where the bar was located, and we could see it getting loud in the evening when we might possibly be wanting to catch some sleep, but in reality this never was the case.

*These pictures would play a vital role on the boat for the next week, as we would find out.


"Like a big orange hug"

We were given about 30 minutes to settle into the cabin - putting clothes in drawers, coats and boots in the closet, toiletries in the cabinet under the sink, and stowing our baggage under the bed (oh so happy with our collapsible duffle purchase) – before we were to report to the ships lounge with our emergency PFDs (ever-present in our cabins) for Captain’s safety instruction and drill. The emergency PFDs are basically just two large bricks of styrofoam strapped around your neck, and not the most comfortable or accessible to wear. One fellow passenger likened them to a big orange hug, designed to keep your face above water no matter what. They tilt your head backward so you can’t really see, which is why we’re next told about the much more form-fitting orange PFDs we’d be wearing for skiff journeys, as well as the even more maneuverable yellow PFDs we’d wear for kayaking. A brief demonstration of the various alarms on the ships horn – 7 short bursts followed by 1 long will mean abandon ship (the first mate counts off the horn blasts with his fingers while simultaneously reciting the accompanying phrase “get. your. ass. off. the. fucking. ship. NOOOOOOOW!”, bringing laughter from the passengers), 3 long blasts will mean man-overboard, etc – and everyone is feeling adequately safe and prepared.

We're also told of the two different public address systems on the boat. The standard system had controls in each cabin to set the volume all the way down to and including "off". It would be used for general announcements. The second system, nicknamed the "god mic", had no volume controls and was generally for shipwide emergency or important information (including calling us down for meals). Brittany also explains that should crew members or the bridge spot any wildlife or other points of interest, they would use one of the PA systems and tell us where to look using the 360-degree analog clock reference; 12 o'clock being directly in front, 6 o'clock being directly aft, and all the hours in between.

A quick return back to the cabin (this is where our cabin placement really came in handy) to drop off our emergency PFDs, and then again to the lounge for our first cocktail hour.


Cocktails, you say?

Yes. The forward lounge, as well as being a warm, cozy place to gather and watch the goings on outside the ship, also has a fully-stocked open bar. Two trained bartenders man the bar in shifts, so you can be plied with very nearly any draft beer, mixed drink, or other concoction you could ever want very nearly any time day or night. For cocktail hour, there was generally a bartenders special, which changed every night. Some favorites were a ginger Mai Tai, and a Liquid Sunshine cocktail (rum, peach schnapps, pineapple juice and grenadine), but I mainly stuck with cider and IPAs. Margaret gravitated to the Hot Toddies. From the warmth of the lounge, we all watched as the crew readied to cast off the bow lines and be off.

Once we were on our way, we were called down to the dining room for dinner. Ship’s dinner is sit down. With only 20 passengers onboard, we only take up three-and-a-half tables. Each has an assigned waiter, and the menu will generally consist of a surf entrée option, a turf entrée option and a vegetarian entrée option. You can choose one entrée, opt for surf-and-turf, or any other combination of two or all three. The meals were always 'delicious, if not a but heavy on the salt.


Itinerary is Just a Guideline

After dinner comes a brief introduction back in the lounge of the “Expedition Team”, who would be our guides for all the activities on and off the ship. There’s leader Brittany, who spent a lifetime in a fishing family, only to see her father sell his boat the summer that Brittany was old enough to go out fishing with him; Erin, a fun, wicked-smart, and bitingly-sarcastic woman who doubles as an on-air personality for the local PBS radio station in the winter-time; Kelsie, an insatiably-bubbly, younger woman who we never ever saw not smiling the entire cruise; and Mickie, the about-to-turn-30 handsome young man who was an ever-flowing wealth of knowledge and brightness. Erin, Brittany and Kelsie all studied some form of biology-type science in college, but Mickie – who’s self-professed Major was “sports and goofing off” – learned everything he knows by “voraciously reading every single book in the library”, and is one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet.

Brittany also presents what on the ship is called "the 6 o'clock news"; a PowerPoint rundown of ship activities to look forward to for the next day(s). As it turns out, the itinerary laid out on the Uncruise website is but a rough sketch (despite the amount of detail it goes into) and the Expedition team has been given carte blanche to devise their own ports of call for this cruise. Brittany is clear that our actual travel plans are “wholly at the will of weather, whales, and whim”. But as it stands this first night, one of the changes they made was specifically that we would not be visiting the town of Pelican (because it sits out closer to the open Pacific, where late spring storms would more likely make for choppy sailing). Ironically, if you recall, the inclusion of Pelican - in-place of the second day in Glacier Bay - was one of the major differences between this cruise and the cruise we had originally booked. But no matter, Brittany tells us that we will, instead, visit Pavlov Bay, a tiny inlet that should provide some wonderful adventure opportunities. Remember that for later.

And speaking of opportunities...

Uncruise prides itself on being an “adventure cruise”. Rather than sitting on the boat watching nature, like you might do on one of the bigger cruise lines, they want you to experience it. As such, every cruise is chalk full of daily adventuring opportunities, all included in the cost of the trip. Most days that the boat is anchored somewhere, you have morning and afternoon opportunities to either take out a tandem kayak, ride in a small skiff (rubber zodiac raft) to check out the shoreline for wildlife, or go on what they like to call a Bushwhack (we later dubbed it an Unhike) where they drop you onshore and you hike with a couple of guides into the interior where there are no trails and quite possibly you are the first humans to tread on the land in years or even decades. They are called bushwhacks, not necessarily because you’re whacking the bushes, but moreso because the bushes whack you. There’s also the very real possibility of running into bears or other wildlife. Bushwhacks are generally rated easy to difficult depending on the expected terrain and/or change in elevation during the hike. Again, remember that for later reference.

Brittany tells us that our first day will be spent in Neka Bay. We should be anchored just before lunch, and can sign up then for afternoon activities. They will offer an introductory Bushwhack that Erin rates as “easy”, as well as kayaking and skiff tours around the bay. We also learn, somewhat to our dismay, that trekking poles are not advised during hikes and bushwhacks because of how easy it is to skewer your fellow hikers in-front of and behind you, particularly as you're in mid-losing-balance panic. It's a shame, but it's best for safety.

We spend the next couple of hours chatting in the lounge, getting to know other passengers (thanks to the name tags). Onboard, there’s a couple from New Zealand – Grant and Heather; Helen, by herself from Australia; Dave, a tall personable chap from Canada; Lisa, another solo passenger from the United States; an older couple, Ed and Cindy, also from the US; Reed and Karen, who farm “horses and hay”; Melisa and Briar; Gwen and Mike; Mirjam and Miriam, travel agents from Sweden; Margy and Bob; and Bill, a retired minister and church counselor. Bill, Dave and Helen were all on the boat the week before as it cruised from Ketchikan up to Juneau. We all talk about where we’re from, what we’ve done for a living (a large portion of the group are retired), and what adventuring “ops” we might prefer to go on tomorrow.

The Captain joins us for a few minutes after his shift, and we talk briefly about the Northern Lights. Apparently that Sunday and Monday nights were supposed to be a super event for the auroras, with extreme activity after midnight. It was, however, very overcast and it was not expected that we would be able to see them while we were sailing. The Captain assures us there was a standing order on the bridge that, whatever the time of night, if the Northern Lights were visible, the crew would notify everyone over the god mic.

When Margaret and I finally return to our cabin, it’s been a long but satisfying day. And we fall asleep to the churning of the ship’s engines as we make our way almost due West for Neka Bay, with no god mic announcements.