Like many frequent travelers, I’ve been feeling a little cooped up for the past year and a half. I was desperate to go somewhere (anywhere!) different, so when the opportunity to spend a week on the MV Westward to explore Alaska’s Inside Passage on Wilderness Travel’s Alaska: Journey to Sitka trip presented itself, I happily climbed aboard.
Alaska had been casually on my list for some time, but I was never in a hurry to get there. Now that I’m back home I can’t wait to return someday. You should go to Alaska, that’s all there is to it. Try as I might, I’m not going to be able to convey a true sense of the scale and the raw beauty of it all with these few words and images. You need to experience it for yourself, and I can’t think of a better way than on the Westward.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Alaska, but I was unprepared for what I found. Though we seldom had a day with sun or blue skies, I was absolutely astounded by the vibrancy of the colors and the incredible texture of the landscape. The juxtaposition of the verdant greenery, glistening, almost metallic sheer rock faces, and otherworldly cyan of the icebergs plying the waters of the Endicott Arm was breathtaking. And you’ll have it all to yourself too. If a place like the Inside Passage existed in the lower 48, there would be a million people there every day and concession stands and drones as far as the eye can see. But fortunately, we were in Alaska.
We awoke that first morning surrounded by icebergs and cold rain. After a hearty breakfast of shrimp and grits, poached eggs, and biscuits, we braved the chill to watch the harbor seals haul themselves up onto the ice as we made our way to Dawes Glacier, then onwards to a place welcomingly named Ford’s Terror for the night. A mother grizzly and her two cubs foraging on shore provided the evening’s entertainment.
Captivating wildlife sightings and unrivaled scenic beauty would continue throughout the voyage. Our captain spotted a pod of orcas the following day teaching the juveniles how to hunt, a hapless sea lion their unwilling teacher’s assistant. An excursion to Baranoff Island and its hidden thermal pools finally brought us ashore. Nowhere is the cyclical nature of existence more apparent than the temperate rainforests of the Alaskan southeast, where abundant life springs from the decay of hemlock, spruce, and cedar.
We had already seen a few bears but we were promised more, and our crew dutifully delivered. Under normal circumstances if I was surrounded by as many bears as we found ourselves in the company of, I would get out of there as quickly as possible. Luckily, they were thoroughly distracted by the teeming multitudes of salmon fighting their way upstream. While it was not the day’s main attraction, the vital importance of the salmons’ annual pilgrimage cannot be overstated. Those that make it past the ursine gauntlet sustain the ecosystem for another year, an offering that distributes the ocean’s bounty throughout the remotest streams and forests, miles from the nearest shoreline.
As if that wasn’t enough, our afternoon transit was interrupted by a pod of eight to ten humpback whales engaged in a cooperative hunting technique known as “bubble netting.” We had seen some flukes and spouts here and there, but this was something else altogether. Seeing them burst forth from the icy depths, mouths agape was one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever experienced in nature. I was rendered speechless by the sight and sound of it all. As one of my compatriots said, one can see how early mariners came to believe in krakens and monsters of the deep.
While the incredible scenery and magnificent wildlife encounters were clearly the stars of the show, our journey wouldn’t have been even close to the magical experience it was without the Westward and her phenomenal crew. The steady rhythm of her original and fanatically maintained engine was the heartbeat of the journey and a consistent, reassuring presence. The Westward is not some hastily converted fishing boat or ill-suited pleasure craft. She was built to take adventurers through the rough and rugged waters of the Inside Passage, and she’s been doing it since 1924—before Alaska was even a state—you can’t get any more authentic than that! I could feel a connection to the ship’s history when Captain Bill gathered us all in the cozy, wood-paneled salon for tall tales after dinner. Sure, you could go to Alaska on your own or on one of the many large cruise ships, but why would you ever deprive yourself of storytime with Captain Bill?
And then there’s the food, which frankly deserves its own post. I’ve had the incredible fortune to have dined at some stellar establishments in my travels, but I’d trade all of those meals in a second for another week of chef Tracie’s cooking. Her ability to produce world-class meals three times a day without assistance in a galley kitchen the size of a shoebox border on sorcery. I heard the food was outstanding, but I knew we were going to be on a boat so I tempered my expectations. Until she served us a gorgeous asparagus custard with shrimp oil and tobiko for the first course of the first dinner.
It was then that I realized that we would all be in for quite a treat whenever the pleasant ring of the dinner bell reached our ears. It went on like this for the duration, and I can honestly say that I’ve never eaten, or more importantly felt, better on any vacation I’ve ever been on. I hesitate to type this because it sounds appallingly trite, but you could genuinely sense her passion and talent in every single dish. Again, you can visit Alaska any way you please, but if you’re not eating boat-made spruce tip cured gravlax with garlic scape aioli, wild-harvested sea asparagus, oyster leaf, and sea lettuce, then what’s the point?
Chocolate truffle eggs in a phyllo nest with Sitka spruce tip syrup. An exuberant and joyful desert.
If you have even the slightest urge to see Alaska, I urge you to follow that impulse. You won’t be disappointed and if you book a week on the Westward you may just end up having the trip of your life.
—Text and photos by WT staff Andrew Coggiola, Alaska: Journey to Sitka.