Alaskan Dream

OF ALL THE TRIPS DONE, BOOKED, OR PLANNED IN 2012 THROUGH 2020, THIS IS THE HIGHLIGHT TRIP. This cruise not only gives me a repeat visit to my favorite Inside Passage locations, but also adds some new ones that I've never visited before. Glimpses of the 1896 Gold Rush live on in the Klondike boomtown of Skagway. Thousands of harbor seals dot icebergs along 30-mile Tracy Fjord. Beauty surrounds at Glacier Bay National Park one of the world's largest international protected areas. Capture the essence of Southeast Alaska in this wide-ranging, 14 day, Ketchikan to Sitka adventure, experiencing Native American cultures and authentic local flavor, spotting tidewater glaciers and islands teeming with wildlife, and gaining special insight into a frontier of remarkable beauty and history.

Day 1, Thursday, June 2: Fly to Sitka
It will be a long set of flights. At least the last two are short. Take the StuporShuttle about 7AM. Weather forecast for Houston: RAIN – which really fouled up the first flight and endangered the connection. Clear weather when the Shuttle came by and on arrival at the airport about 8:30, then the storm hit at 9 disrupting all airport operations.

United UA 1779
Houston – Seattle9:53A – 12:48P4:552:17

The first flight “pushed back” at 10:25 after it rained into the airplane causing many interruptions on boarding. Then there was long sit-and-wait on the runway resulting in:

United UA 1779Houston – Seattle11:40 – 2:304:501:00
.Or should I count it as10:25 – 2:306:051:00

We were about 1 ½ hours late getting into Seattle, but luckily the Alaska Air was also running late. I stopped at the Alaska Air service center and found out about the late Alaska Air flight, and that there were later flights which would arrive in Sitka later “tonight” so I should, maybe, get my luggage tonight. Then I get slammed in the back by someone pushing one of those ‘rental’ luggage carts. My back hurt for the whole trip; sometimes pretty bad. This messes up lots of the days thereafter. The subsequent flight schedule:

Alaska AS 67Seattle – Ketchikan3:05P – 4:10P2:050:50
.Became3:30P – 4:40P2:100:45
Alaska AS 67Ketchikan – Sitka5:00P – 5:33P0:33 10:40
.Became5:25P – 6:10P0:4510:45

So there was NOT a safe amount of time for lunch in Seattle. After a 0:50 stop in Ketchikan, finally arrived (after a fairly bumpy flight) in Sitka at a fairly reasonable time (my luggage even made it – WOW!!) and transfer (in light showers) to the $$$ We$tmark Hotel (booked as part of the trip.) Westmark Sitka. It is only a 3-star hotel; owned by Holland America. An “Alaskan Nightmare” agent met us at the Sitka airport and took us to our way overpriced Pri$on Cell for the night and provide a much disorganized, small, bit of information about tomorrow’s schedule. Sitka extra meals day 1 & 2: Subway is across the street from the hotel. Take munchies for breakfast on day 2. To bed early (7:45 Sitka / 10:45 Houston).

Except for Houston, the weather forecast was over-done – decent weather.

Day 2, Friday, June 3: Sitka (Pop. 9000) / Embark
It is a gloomy daylight (4AM). I had my munchies for breakfast then got some more nibbles at the “Hospitality Center” before the day’s activities started. The schedule we got yesterday is mostly wrong. We meet one of our Exploration Leaders, Lee Vale who has/is a Tlingit tribal member and cultural “expert.” Explore Sitka, the only community in Southeast Alaska that faces the open ocean waters of the Gulf of Alaska first by bus, then visit the sites that highlight the community’s rich Alaska Native and Russian history, including the Sheldon Jackson Museum (excellent), Russian Bishop’s House (interesting), and St. Michael’s Cathedral (sorta boring). There were some very nice young grade-school students out selling lemonade and cookies to raise money for their project and we "all" had to have lemonade and cookies. We next head back to the Hospitality Center for a poor sandwich and munchies. The young ladies cookies were better.

The day is mostly nice until ~1:30 then dark, windy, and cold. Then at 3PM, transfer and embark the Baranof Dream (Baranof Nightmare?) and I cringe miserably as I see the torture chamber (“cabin”) I got stuck with. It is classified officially as A* but the A stands for Awful. The crew is very nice however. The rain starts getting heavy as we cruise the winding narrows north of town while watching for bald eagles, sea otters, bears, whales, and other wildlife (invisible in the rain and gloom). We do get some better orientation/introductions by Lee, and by Emily Berman who is the other Exploration Leader and the naturalist. Dinner tonight – the main course is fish, as it will usually be so the options are: 1) (not) eat fish; 2) eat the other not-so-enticing option; 3) skip the meal.

Day 3, Saturday, June 4: True Alaska Exploration / Hoonah (Pop. 150)
Savor the serenity (serenity? Not is this rain and choppy waves.) of wilderness on an unscripted day of discovery. The options are countless, dictated by the day’s circumstances, including a coastline kayak paddle, whale encounters, or a hike through old-growth forest. We may do a beach landing on unspoiled shoreline to explore a tidal flat or track along with a foraging bear from the safety of our DIB (zodiac). But all the above gets deleted due to the weather.

Mid-morning we arrive in Hoonah (Xunaa in Tlingit) on Chichagof Island. We visit the 1930's Hoonah Packing Company facility now converted into a museum showcasing the cannery industry in the early twentieth century with exhibits detailing how the cannery operated. It is interesting but not fantastic. The local guide is very good though, and Emily takes us on a nice nature walk. We do chance into seeing some Tlingit canoes enroute to Juneau for the First Nations Festival next Friday and Saturday. They are singing and chanting as they row, and will meet up with some other canoes before making the 90-100 mile crossing to Juneau.

This afternoon we will explore the waters of Icy Strait along northern Chichagof Island. However the continuing weather hassles block much of any chance to see anything so we continue on to Glacierless Bay to pick up the local specialists: Glacierless Bay NP Ranger narrates the day’s program, and a Native Huna Tlingit interpretive naturalist (the best part of the visit) joins us to discuss traditional cultural ties to this ancient treasure.

Day 4, Sunday, June 5: Glacierless Bay NP
This NP fjord extends 65 miles, containing the remnants of 8 tidewater glaciers, and provides a habitat for a wide array of wildlife, including brown and black bears, wolves, mountain goats, Steller sea lions, and humpback whales. We wake up seeing the highlight Margerie Glacier, known for its dramatic calving displays. In the 15 years I’ve been coming here, the glaciers have retreated so much that there isn’t much left to see except the rocks and trees. The weather itself is dull and gloomy so not worth seeing much of the scenery but we do see some bears, wolves, and mountain goats. Late in the day we drop off the two NP specialists.

Day 5, Monday, June 6: Auke Bay / Juneau (Pop. 32500) / Orca Point Lodge
We anchor in Auke Bay which is close to the Mendenhall Glacier and between that and Juneau. The weather is so poor at the Mendenhall stop (clouds and rain) that there is not much to see. Then take a fairly long but ride to spend the day visiting (being bored in) Juneau. Lee takes us to an native arts shop where I splurge on some nice, authentic, native prints. There is also time to explore on your own. You may visit and take in the panorama of the ($$) Mount Roberts Tram.

There are 6 big cruise ships in the harbor: Princess (2), HAL, Celebrity, NCL, and one other. The town is jammed.

(NEW) End the day with a boring evening at Orca Point Lodge, our (ADC) day-lodge on Colt Island. Enjoy the grounds, beach, and marine life. Dine on salmon, or king crab, or really fatty prime rib with lots of gristle. Very poor. The best part of the dinner was the lemonade. Weather again ruins any outdoor activity including the promised beachside bonfire. Not the best of days.

Day 6, Tuesday, June 7: Skagway (Pop. 1000) / Haines (Pop. 1800)
We get a short streetcar tour the Klondike gold rush town of Skagway, but with no time to explore on our own. Then we are forced to board the White Pass & Yukon railroad for the 5th time, for an approximately 85 minute, 30 mile miserably poor, train trip journeying north, retracing the steps of the gold-seekers into Canada. Built in 1898, the railroad climbs nearly 3000 feet in 20 miles, and offers mostly un-interesting wilderness views. We return to Skagway by bus. Although I’ve been to Skagway at least 4 times before, there are a few places of interest – but not that train. I should have skipped the train and done my own exploring in Skagway.

Later we had a very nice guided walking tour through Haines with a visit to pre-WWI Fort Seward Historic Site with parade grounds overlooking the Lynn Canal. We also get to see a bit of the town. Haines, Alaska was recently chosen by Outside Magazine as one of America’s top 10 locations to live and play. I’ll see more of it when I’m back here in August.

Day 7, Wednesday, June 8: Tracy Arm / Frederick Sound
Journey through Tracy Arm Fjord, an area the naturalist John Muir referred to as “A wild unfinished Yosemite.” This glacier fjord is renowned for its pristine waterfalls, icebergs, and abundant harbor seals, and granite cliffs that rise from sea level to 4000 feet. At 32 miles long and averaging just a mile wide, the features of Tracy Arm are contained in a relative small space, adding to the beauty of the area.

Oops, there is so much ice built up on the terminal moraine entrance to the bay that we can’t get through so we are “treated” to a very boring ride down Endicott Arm. DIB excursions (cancelled) provide the opportunity to view the area in even greater detail. Wasted time.

Not only will you experience the tranquility and dramatic views of Alaska, Later also if you would like to see humpback whales and other marine mammals in the world-renowned waters of Frederick Sound your chances are pretty good through the Frederick Sound passage. Known as being the best whale waters of southeast Alaska, may see at least a few humpback whales and if your timing is right (it wasn’t), you will be able to see groups come up to the surface to feed within a few hundred feet of your ship. We did see some whales and even several Orcas (killer whales) – less humpbacks than usual but the orcas were great.

WE FINALLY GET TO THE SUPER PART OF THE TRIP - at least 90% of why I came on the cruise.

Day 8, Thursday, June 9: PETERSBURG HIGHLIGHT (Pop. 3273)
Discover the great Mitkof Island fishing town of Petersburg, MY FAVORITE PLACE IN ALASKA. Founded by Norwegian fishermen in the late 1800’s, Petersburg is nicknamed Alaska’s “Little Norway.” 2013 Census indicates 3273 full-time residents. The people here are really nice, and the town hasn't been turned into a "fleece the tourist" mecca by any monster cruise ships. Experience this Scandinavian culture with a folk dance show by local youth, the great / excellent / Highlight! Leikarring Dancers, at the “Sons of Norway Hall”.

Later enjoy a narrated bus tour and take time (about half the afternoon) to again explore the community at our own leisure to visit friends. Be sure to check out the “Rosemailing”, and maybe do some shopping for some Petersburg souvenirs - maybe an Alaska one also. This a major timing improvement over the Rode Skalur schedule which gave only a half-day to each of Petersburg, and Wrangell which we visit tomorrow.

See the end of the notes for more information on MY FAVORITE PLACE in ALASKA.

Day 9, Friday, June 10: Wrangell (Pop. 2700)
More time here in Wrangell than on the Rode Skalur cruise. Home to a little over 2000 permanent residents, Wrangell is the only town in Alaska to have been under the jurisdiction of three flags, and ruled by four nations – the Tlingit, Russia, England, and the United States. Enjoy several options to explore this colorful history including a guided walking tour and a trip to the Wrangell Museum (VERY nice!). Visit the State Historic Park, the Petroglyph Beach, which contains the highest concentration of petroglyphs in Southeast Alaska. Some of the people chose to go out and play 9 holes of golf on Wrangell’s “Muskeg Meadows.”

At least we had the opportunity to purchase some garnets from the school students (I’m taking extra money for that) – it belongs to them to provide funds for scholarships. I was hoping that Lee could find someone to take me out to see the Garnet Ledge. Unfortunately it turns out that the Garnet Ledge is NOT near town: they have to go up the Stikine River a way, then climb up a narrow gorge and climb a hill. So a visit to the Ledge is totally out, ever. More time here in Wrangell than on the Rode Skalur cruise.

THE GARNET LEDGE: Selling of garnets to visitors to Wrangell has been going on since the 1800s. Wrangell’s burgundy-colored garnets have been written about in newspapers, magazines, and books for about the same time period. They have always been a popular souvenir for visitors.

Much has been written about the children selling garnets over the years by travel writers. The story about Wrangell’s garnets is a well-known story. The history of the garnet ledge and its connection to the community and the Stikine River is a unique piece of history.

Sold as curios at various shops along Wrangell’s streets, the garnets were an interesting specimen to add to one’s curio cabinet. They have been donated to museums across the United States. Many have filed claims to the area since the late 1800s thinking that they would strike it rich. They failed. No doubt because they found it hard work. Possibly the lure of gold in the North Country pulled them away.

The group of women who owned the Alaska Garnet Mining and Manufacturing Co. set up a small shop on the dock during the summer to sell their garnets to cruise ship passengers. And from there, children took up the garnet sales by meeting cruise ships and Alaska Marine Highway ferries when they called on the community. Over the years, the children of Wrangell have put themselves through college with the earnings that socked away in their savings accounts. Sure, they have used some of those funds to pay for school clothes and some cool gadgets along the way. And today, some of those children you see selling their garnets are grandchildren of the earlier garnet sales.

The community of Wrangell is very protective about the garnet ledge. It is, after all, the legacy of Fred Hanford who left the property to be held in trust for the children of Wrangell. From the locals, to the U.S. Forest Service, and even Alaska State Troopers, it is well-known that the property belongs to the children of Wrangell.

Day 10, Saturday, June 11: Thorne Bay (Pop. 500) / Kasaan (Pop. 49)
NEW - my first visit here Experience the frontier spirit of Alaska’s timber years on a tour of Thorne Bay, once the largest logging camp in the world. This tight-knit community is located on the east side of Prince of Wales, an island renowned for its high concentration of black bears. Here, meet resident artists and enjoy a walking tour of the town while keeping an eye out for the island’s fauna. I now rate Thorne Bay as my 3rd favorite small city on Alaska.

(NEW) Although we skip Kake on this cruise (included in the Rode Skalur trip), we do visit the other two major Tlingit communities, Kasaan and Metlakatla. In Kasaan, take a VERY long walk (2/3rd mile to the trailhead, then ¾ mile to the Whale House – each way) an enchanted forest path laden with intricately carved totem poles to the Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House, the only remaining traditional Haida longhouse in the US. Inside stand four original house posts, or “Gaats,” that were most likely carved at Old Kasaan in about 1880, and then installed at Naay I’waans (Whale House). The tallest interior post, the “Head House Totem,” dates to an even earlier time and was brought here from its original location inside Son-i-Hat’s uncle’s house in Old Kaasan, about 7 miles away. The house is being renovated so there isn’t that much there now compared to the houses in Wrangell and Metlakatla. Fairly heavy rain for the last ~200 yards as we get back to the boat.

Political poster in Kasaan – “Hillary for PRISON in 2016.”

Day 11, Sunday, June 12: Metlakatla (Pop. 1375)/ Misty Fjords
(NEW) Immerse yourself in the extraordinary history, art, and cultural traditions of the Metlakatla Indian Community on Annette Island. Visit a traditional Tsmishian longhouse, enjoy a ceremonial dance (exceptional) performance, and meet Native artists. This turned out to be a really great visit.

Later our ship will glide beneath the 3000-food glacier-sculpted cliffs of For-Very-Real-Misty Fjords (my 6th visit here and to me better than the Tracy Arm). Discover the fjord’s natural history, listen to the calls of a myriad of seabirds, feel the mist from waterfalls, and see famous New Eddystone Rock, a stunning volcanic core. Nice cruise but just too dark, gloomy, misty, foggy etc. to enjoy the way I remember it.

Day 12, Monday, June 13: Ketchikan (Pop. 8250)
Disembark in Ketchikan, known as Alaska’s “First City”. Since I’ve been here 6 times before, so it’s not a problem that I have very little extra time here. We are kicked off the boat at 8:30 and taken to a nearby Hospitality Room for the long wait to go to the airport. I did get out a while to see some of the nearby sights and find something to eat. At least 5 large ships in port.

Alaska AS174Ketchikan – Seattle4:05P – 7:00P1:554:40

The layover in Seattle is almost 5 hours, so there is time for a decent dinner – plus some “midnight snacks”. We don’t leave Seattle until almost midnight.

United UA 1696Seattle – Houston11:40P – 5:48A4:0810:43

Day 13, Tuesday, June 14: Arrive Home
After a long miserable overnight flight, finally arrive home. I made it home about 7.

CRUISE COMPARISON: This cruise is 2 days shorter than the Rode Skalur trip, skips Kake and a couple of other stops, but gives full days in Petersburg and Wrangell, which got very short-changed in the RS version. Overall: improvement. Although I don’t like starting in Sitka and have little or no sightseeing in Ketchikan, it isn’t bad, and Alaskan Dreams booked the arrival hotel for Sitka. I probably would have needed to add one in Ketchikan. This lets me book my own air, my own schedule, and my own seat selection which the Abominable Aviation Department (Abominations Department) of Rode Skalur couldn’t/wouldn’t guarantee as they book only a month or less before the trip.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge


The “Admiralty Dream” was the former “Spirit of Columbia”; the “Baranof Dream” was the “Spirit of Alaska.” I.E. Cruise West’s two smallest ships.

The exodus of Cruise West from the Alaska small-ship scene in 2010 left a void in the expedition market for new lines to fill. One of these, Sitka-based Alaskan Dream Cruises, picked up Cruise West's former "Spirit of Alaska" and, after renovation, launched it in 2013 as the 49-passenger "Baranof Dream." Their cruises promise that passengers will explore the "Real Alaska," with Inside Passage itineraries focused on the area's outdoor beauty and rich cultural heritage. "Baranof Dream" excels at its mission, with programming anchored by two expedition leaders, one who interprets native Tlingit customs, and the other who concentrates on biology and wildlife.

"Baranof Dream" is NOT a luxury vessel - as I well know - I've cruised on it before. There's only one public room that feels more like a small living room than a lavish lounge. The smallest cabins are a mere 105 square feet. The atmosphere is decidedly canual. Sweatshirts, hoodies, and rain gear are the clothing of choice, and few people change for dinner. But what "Baranof Cream" lacks in luxury, it makes up with hominess - thanks to a friendly and laid-back staff. Unique touches - such as a daily cookie hour, Alaska-themed bedtime stories and stops in small Tlingit towns - encourage an onboard camaraderie. The open bridge policy allows the crew to mingle easily with the passengers, adding a summer camp feel to the trip.

Plus, the ship's size allows it to get close to cascading waterfalls, playful sea otters and stray icebergs. Even native Alaskans say they see something different on every cruise. Overall, "Baranof Dream" makes the perfuct vehicle for those who want to stray from the usual Inside Passage itineraries offered by larger cruise ships. You'll leave not only with plenty of wildlife photos, but a better understanding of how Alaskans live and play - and an authenticity that comes from supporting local ownereship.

Passengers: 49 / Length: 143' / Cabins" 25 / Speed: 9 knots

My cabin is Category A (A for awful), main deck, cabin number 204.


Mitkof Island is in the Alexander Archipelago in southeast Alaska, at 56°35'54"N 132°48'33"W between Kupreanof Island to the west and the Alaska mainland to the east. It averages about 9.9 miles wide and 17 miles long with a land area of 208.4 square miles, making it the 30th largest island in the United States. Much of the island is managed as part of the Tongass National Forest. The island is relatively flat with numerous muskegs. The highest point is Crystal Mountain 3,317’. The first European to sight the island was James Johnstone, one of George Vancouver's officers during his 1791-95 expedition, in 1793. The island is shown as separate from Kupreanof Island in an 1844 Russian chart, while the name was published in 1848 on a Russian Hydrographic Department chart as "Os(trov) Mitkova" for an Admiral Prokofy Mitkov.

The Wrangell Narrows, one of the six Listed Narrows of Southeast Alaska, runs from the south to the north end of Mitkof Island. Bordered by Mitkof Island on one side, and Kupreanof and Woewodski Islands on the other, the Wrangell Narrows creates the only navigable 'Inside Passage' at this latitude. Because of its shallow depths, the largest cruise ships do not pass through these narrows. Spirit Creek is the southernmost stream on the island in the Wrangell Narrows, just two miles from where the narrows opens onto Sumner Strait.

Petersburg is located among the forested islands and mountains of Alaska’s beautiful Inside Passage on the northern tip of Mitkof Island. It’s a small, vibrant town with about 3,400 permanent residents, located in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. The people are great and the Tides Inn is my favorite hotel in Alaska. Petersburg’s day-to-day atmosphere is that of a busy fishing village. Fishing and pleasure boats dominate the waters around Petersburg. Our town is off-the-beaten-path of the large cruise ships, which cannot navigate the Wrangell Narrows, a winding scenic waterway between Mitkof and Kupreanof Islands.

Petersburg residents enjoy a variety of outdoor sports activities. Fishing, hunting, berry picking, biking, hiking, birding, beachcombing and wildlife viewing are popular with locals and visitors alike. Canada geese, bald eagles, seals, whales, sea lions, wolves, black bear, moose, deer, goats, and trumpeter swans are among the many animals common to our area. On Mitkof Island there are fishing, hunting and hiking areas that are accessible by automobile and trail. There is an intricate road system (mostly old logging roads that are gravel-surfaced and not maintained in winter) that provides a wide variety of recreation opportunities.

Wildlife abounds in Petersburg. Eagles are regularly seen in the trees and on the beaches around town. Over 240 species of birds have been recorded on the 210 square mile island. Mitkof Island is also home to healthy wolf, black bear, deer, and moose populations. Sea lions and seals are often seen in the harbor and the waters surrounding Petersburg. Humpback whales and orcas are sometimes seen swimming off the shores of our island. During the summer, hundreds of humpback whales live and feed about 40 miles north of Petersburg where Frederick Sound joins with Stephens Passage. These can be best viewed with local charters specializing in marine tours.

All species of wild Alaska salmon can be caught in the waters around Petersburg. You can fish from shore, rent a motorized skiff, join one of the many charter operators, or stay at a fishing lodge. Crab, halibut and rockfish are also plentiful just a short boat ride from town. Petersburg is known for its wide range of public art. You’ll find artistic designs stamped into the concrete of the sidewalks and Rosemaling (Norwegian flower painting) on the fronts of stores and residences. The influence of local artists and crafts people is seen in the murals, totems, and sculpture along the downtown streets.